In the age before the internet, TV, movies and Twilight novels, one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the lecture. Americans would pack auditoriums and lyceums to hear speakers hold forth on topics from science to religion. In the half century between the 1830s and the 1880s, no speaker was more popular than Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord.
Trained as a Unitarian minister, Emerson ultimately became America's top secular preacher and the father of the philosophical movement known as transcendentalism. Emerson believed that true spiritual revelation came from instinct, and encouraged people to slow down, listen up and trust the voice within. "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within," Emerson wrote in his essay Self-Reliance, "more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages."1
Emerson's uniquely American philosophies were not without fault. His me-first, go-your-own-way boosterism could be interpreted as self-centeredness, a trait Americans are often accused of having. In other words, one critic wrote, "Emerson must be held blameless for the fact that his exaltations on individual get-up-and-go have ended, in the fullness of time, by producing George Steinbrenner."2 His philosophies never came up with a satisfactory answer for why really terrible, evil things happen in the world, and whether a wicked-minded person should also accept Emerson's exhortations to "trust thyself."3
But as his friend and contemporary Walt Whitman, said, "the best part of Emersonianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself."4 You can dislike Emerson, turn against him, toss his works aside and set out on your own path. Just the way he told you to.