Before there was Oprah, before there was The Secret, before every self-help guru on the Internet or TV was telling us to tap into our inner truth, there was Ralph Waldo Emerson. This Unitarian minister turned secular preacher is the godfather of the modern American concept of the self. Thanks to him, we have permission to go our own way even when it's not popular. "Trust thyself," Emerson told us; "every heart vibrates to that iron string."5
Emerson's ideas formed the backbone of a school of thought known as transcendentalism. This philosophy flourished in mid-nineteenth century America, at a time when it seemed the nation was poised at the threshold of great change. Adherents such as Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott believed that a universal spirit joined all humans, and that truly divine revelation came from personal reflection. From their headquarters in Concord, Massachusetts, the transcendentalists encouraged communion with nature and excoriated slavery. They believed they could help the world be better than it is.
All wasn't perfect in Concord, however. Emerson's emphasis on the self above all else could come off as a little - or a lot - self-centered. He neglected to tell us whether evil people should trust their instincts just like righteous people should. He sometimes got so wrapped up in the letter of his theories that he failed to do the right thing, for example, to help a sick friend rather than lecturing him on self-reliance. Emerson is the godfather of American thought, and as we all know America is a country of tremendous talent and promise as well as some serious flaws. So do we need to revisit Emerson, or did we listen too well in the first place?