Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.”
Walt Whitman

A while back, a coworker lent me a book called Self-Reliance, “The Wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson as Inspiration for Daily Living.” Edited and introduced by Richard Whelan, who says that he loves Emerson’s essays and has read them many times over the years but found eventually he could get the same and even better experience by just reading the many sections he had underlined over the years. He writes:

I came to think of the essays as gardens in which the underlined passages were magnificent flowers — and all the rest a rampant and choking growth of nineteenth-century rhetorical weeds and vines that were best rooted out and cut back. It was then that I realized that an abridged edition of the essays could introduce Emerson, and make his down-to-earth wisdom accessible, to a readership that might otherwise be put off by his sometimes long, difficult, and over-written passages.

Richard Whelan, Self-Reliance

(He then goes on to answer expected charges of “irreverence and impertinence” by quoting Emerson.)

The 200 page trade paperback certainly does look approachable and I liked the idea that some of the key ideas would be highlighted in this Cliffs Notes-like version.

I really enjoyed the book. I think I understood maybe 50% of it, but in the half that I could wrap my mind around, it provoked a lot of thought and excitement. Heating the water and coming to a boil.

Whelan mentions turning to Emerson when he felt sad or discouraged and would count on the essays as if a friend to “utter the right words of solace or encouragement.” I thought the passages in the book were inspiring, but not necessarily reassuring. I happened to be reading it at the time that my daughter was born eleven weeks premature and spent eight weeks in the NICU at Children’s Hospital, and didn’t find it to be very consoling in that situation. (She’s doing fine now, thank you.)

I think Whelan’s book served the stated purpose: it was an accessible introduction. I ended up buying it even though Emerson’s writings are long since in the public domain and available many places online.

And then I moved on to look for more Emerson and found on Amazon a reasonably-priced 850 page collection, The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, introduced by Mary Oliver.

Back to RWE

Anyway, what prompted this whole post was that I’ve picked up this new book to start reading and right away am confronted with this in the introduction to Nature:

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

And it looks like I’m in for a good ride, even if I only understand (or think I understand) so little of it.

Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?”