Emerson the Platonist
“THE mind of Emerson may best be studied from the standpoint of Platonism. If one examines the chief centers of his teaching to be found in his conception of nature, soul, love and beauty, art, and mythology, he will find that Emerson in his most characteristic utterances is indebted to Plato and the Platonists. In those great intellectual teachers Emerson found a body of thought which he so thoroughly appropriated that to understand the character of his mind it is necessary to watch it consciously forming itself in keeping with the main trend of Platonic speculation.”
~ John Smith Harrison
“Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought.”
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:39)
People today have often heard that Ralph Waldo Emerson, the eminent 19th century American Transcendentalist, was influenced by Indian (Vedantic) religion. Less well known, though, is that he was even more influenced by Platonism. Emerson was an avid reader of Plato all his life. In Emerson’s Collected Works [CW] Plato or Platonism are mentioned over 300 times. His personal journals [J] contain over 250 references. And he refers almost as often to later Platonists like Plutarch, Plotinus and Proclus.
Understanding Emerson’s deep debt to Platonism, one he readily admitted, is important for a full appreciation of Emerson’s message and its relevance for today’s troubled world. One of the unfortunate trends of higher education in recent decades has been a systematic denigration of the Western Tradition. We are told that the Western Tradition is the source of all the evils of society: capitalism, slavery, war, repression of natural instincts, imperialism, patriarchy, etc. – the list goes on. But this view is founded on ignorance and prejudice. An impartial study of the Western Tradition shows that it is founded on the perennial philosophy and the ancient religious beliefs of humankind common to humanity. Plato, for example, drew heavily from more ancient religious sources – Pythagoreanism, Orphism, Egyptian religion, etc. A great deal of his philosophy, in fact, is expressed in myth, not logical arguments.
For too long people have looked at Emerson and Transcendentalism and merely taken it for granted that it constitutes a rejection of the Western Tradition, and a decisive turn to the East. This is a modern revisionist view, and simply does not correspond with the facts.
We can identify at least three distinct themes of Platonism reflected in Emerson and other American Transcendentalists:
1. A view of man. The essence of the Platonist view of man is that we, as human beings, have a two-fold nature. We are, of course, material creatures, living in a temporal, material world. But at the same time we have an eternal nature, which exists outside of time. We must, first of all, reject the modern materialistic view that sees man only as a collection of atoms, a machine. But we must not reject our material nature altogether or try live as world-denying ascetics. What we seek is to live an integrated life. having, so to speak, a foot on both realms – material and eternal, earth and heaven. We are as a Sacred Tree, a Cosmic Priest, uniting heaven and earth.
2. A view of Nature. The material world as it appears is, in a sense, a reflection of deeper spiritual realities, eternal Forms in a Platonic Ideal realm. Nature has spiritual meaning. Nature is constantly teaching us spiritual things.
3. Self-cultivation. From Platonism, Transcendentalism derives its emphasis on the individual responsibility for self-cultivation, especially cultivation of ones moral and intellectual life. Distinctly Platonic is the emphasis on building the strength of the intellect in the service of spiritual growth. Well is the story told that engraved on the door of Plato’s Academy a sign read, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”
Emerson and Transcendentalism offer a great deal in themselves for modern readers. But Transcendentalist writings may also serve to increase interest in Platonism, the Western Tradition, and the perennial philosophy. If more people read Plato today we would have fewer arguments about religion. Plato is a common element of Christianity and paganism, orthodoxy and esotericism. He unites East with West. He harmonizes moralism and naturalism.
While a definitive treatment of Emerson’s Platonism has yet to be written and would be valuable, that is not the goal here. (If I am unable to write a longer piece soon, perhaps I can add to this article incrementally as the opportunity presents itself.) For now at least, let these few remarks, along with a few quotes by Emerson, and a Bibliography, suffice to get this idea out on the web.
Quotes of Emerson
The unity of Asia and the detail of Europe; the infinitude of the Asiatic soul and the defining, result-loving, machine-making, surface-seeking, opera-going Europe,—Plato came to join, and, by contact, to enhance the energy of each. The excellence of Europe and Asia are in his brain…In short, a balanced soul was born, perceptive of the two elements…. A man who could see two sides of a thing was born.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:53-54)
AMONG secular books, Plato only is entitled to Omar’s fanatical compliment to the Koran, when he said, “Burn the libraries; for their value is in this book.” These sentences contain the culture of nations; these are the corner-stone of schools; these are the fountain-head of literatures. A discipline it is in logic, arithmetic, taste, symmetry, poetry, language, rhetoric, ontology, morals or practical wisdom. There was never such range of speculation.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:39)
Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato,—at once the glory and the shame of mankind, since neither Saxon nor Roman have availed to add any idea to his categories. No wife, no children had he, and the thinkers of all civilized nations are his posterity and are tinged with his mind. How many great men Nature is incessantly sending up out of night, to be his men,—Platonists! the Alexandrians, a constellation of genius; the Elizabethans, not less; Sir Thomas More, Henry More, John Hales, John Smith, Lord Bacon, Jeremy Taylor, Ralph Cudworth, Sydenham, Thomas Taylor; Marcilius Ficinus and Picus Mirandola.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:40)
Society is glad to forget the innumerable laborers who ministered to this architect, and reserves all its gratitude for him.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:42)
Plato absorbed the learning of his times,—Philolaus, Timaeus, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and what else; then his master, Socrates; and finding himself still capable of a larger synthesis,—beyond all example then or since,—he travelled into Italy, to gain what Pythagoras had for him; then into Egypt, and perhaps still farther East, to import the other element, which Europe wanted, into the European mind.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:42)
Plato is clothed with the powers of a poet, stands upon the highest place of the poet, and (though I doubt he wanted the decisive gift of lyric expression), mainly is not a poet because he chose to use the poetic gift to an ulterior purpose.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:43)
We are to account for the supreme elevation of this man in the intellectual history of our race,—how it happens that in proportion to the culture of men they become his scholars; that, as our Jewish Bible has implanted itself in the table-talk and household life of every man and woman in the European and American nations, so the writings of Plato have preoccupied every school of learning, every lover of thought, every church, every poet,—making it impossible to think, on certain levels, except through him. He stands between the truth and every man’s mind, and has almost impressed language and the primary forms of thought with his name and seal.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:44-45)
At last comes Plato….; he is the arrival of accuracy and intelligence. “He shall be as a god to me, who can rightly divide and define.” This defining is philosophy. Philosophy is the account which the human mind gives to itself of the constitution of the world.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:47)
We have two needs. Being and Organization. See how much pains we take here in Plato’s dialogues to set in order the One Fact in two or three or four steps, and renew as oft as we can the pleasure, the eternal surprise of coming at the last fact, as children run up steps to jump down, or up a hill to coast down on sleds, or run far for one slide, or as we get fishing-tackle and go many miles to a watering-place to catch fish, and having caught one and learned the whole mystery, we still repeat the process for the same result, though perhaps the fish are thrown overboard at the last. The merchant plays the same game on ‘Change, the card-lover at whist, — and what else does the scholar? He knows how the poetry, he knows how the novel or the demonstration will affect him, — no new result but the oldest of all, yet he still craves a new book and bathes himself anew with the plunge at the last. The young men here, this morning, who have tried all the six or seven things to be done, namely, the sail, the bowlingalley, the ride to Hull and to Cohasset, the bath, and the spyglass, they are in a rage just now to do something: these itching fingers, this short activity, these nerves, this plasticity or creativeness accompanies forever and ever the Profound Being.
~ Emerson, J 6.5- 6 (1841)
[John] Locke is as surely the influx of decomposition and of prose, as Bacon and the Platonists of growth. The Platonic is the poetic tendency; the so-called scientific is the negative and poisonous. ‘T is quite certain that Spenser, Burns, Byron and Wordsworth will be Platonists, and that the dull men will be Lockists. Then politics and commerce will absorb from the educated class men of talents without genius, precisely because such have no resistance.
~ Emerson, English Traits, ‘Literature’ (CW 5.239-240)
Of Plato I hesitate to speak, lest there should be no end. You find in him that which you have already found in Homer, now ripened to thought,—the poet converted to a philosopher, with loftier strains of musical wisdom than Homer reached; as if Homer were the youth and Plato the finished man; yet with no less security of bold and perfect song, when he cares to use it, and with some harp-strings fetched from a higher heaven. He contains the future, as he came out of the past. In Plato you explore modern Europe in its causes and seed,—all that in thought, which the history of Europe embodies or has yet to embody. The well-informed man finds himself anticipated. Plato is up with him too. Nothing has escaped him. Every new crop in the fertile harvest of reform, every fresh suggestion of modern humanity, is there. If the student wish to see both sides, and justice done to the man of the world, pitiless exposure of pedants, and the supremacy of truth and the religious sentiment, he shall be contented also. Why should not young men be educated on this book? It would suffice for the tuition of the race.
~ Emerson, Society and Solitude, ‘Books’ (CW 7:198-199)
We cannot prove our faith by syllogisms. The argument refuses to form in the mind. A conclusion, an inference, a grand augury, is ever hovering, but attempt to ground it, and the reasons are all vanishing and inadequate. You cannot make a written theory or demonstration of this as you can an orrery of the Copernican astronomy. It must be sacredly treated. Speak of the mount in the mount. Not by literature or theology, but only by rare integrity, by a man permeated and perfumed with airs of heaven, — with manliest or womanliest enduring love, — can the vision be clear to a use the most sublime. And hence the fact that in the minds of men the testimony of a few inspired souls has had such weight and penetration. You shall not say, “O my bishop, O my pastor, is there any resurrection? What do you think? Did Dr Channing believe that we should know each other? did Wesley? did Butler? did Fénelon?” What questions are these! Go read Milton, Shakspeare or any truly ideal poet. Read Plato, or any seer of the interior realities. Read St Augustine, Swedenborg, Immanuel Kant. Let any master simply recite to you the substantial laws of the intellect, and in the presence of the laws themselves you will never ask such primary-school questions.
~ Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, ‘Immortality’ (CW 8: 346-347)
The savans are chatty and vain, but hold them hard to principle and definition, and they become mute and near-sighted. What is motion? what is beauty? what is matter? what is life? what is force? Push them hard and they will not be loquacious. They will come to Plato, Proclus and Swedenborg. The invisible and imponderable is the sole fact.
~ Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, ‘Poetry and Imagination’ (CW 8:18)
For Plato, it would be pedantry to catalogue his philosophy; the secret of constructing pyramids and cathedrals is lost, and not less of Platonic philosophies.
~ Emerson, J 7.62 (1845)
It seems as if the day was not wholly profane in which we have given heed to some natural object. The fall of snowflakes in a still air, preserving to each crystal its perfect form; the blowing of sleet over a wide sheet of water, and over plains; the waving rye-field; the mimic waving of acres of houstonia, whose innumerable florets whiten and ripple before the eye; the reflections of trees and flowers in glassy lakes; the musical, steaming, odorous south wind, which converts all trees to wind-harps; the crackling and spurting of hemlock in the flames, or of pine logs, which yield glory to the walls and faces in the sitting-room,—these are the music and pictures of the most ancient religion.
~ Emerson, Essays, 2d series, ‘Nature’ (CW 3:172)
I cannot recite, even thus rudely, laws of the intellect, without remembering that lofty and sequestered class who have been its prophets and oracles, the high-priesthood of the pure reason, the Trismegisti, the expounders of the principles of thought from age to age. When at long intervals we turn over their abstruse pages, wonderful seems the calm and grand air of these few, these great spiritual lords who have walked in the world,—these of the old religion,—dwelling in a worship which makes the sanctities of Christianity look parvenues and popular; for “persuasion is in soul, but necessity is in intellect.” This band of grandees, Hermes, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Plato, Plotinus, Olympiodorus, Proclus, Synesius and the rest, have somewhat so vast in their logic, so primary in their thinking, that it seems antecedent to all the ordinary distinctions of rhetoric and literature, and to be at once poetry and music and dancing and astronomy and mathematics. I am present at the sowing of the seed of the world. With a geometry of sunbeams the soul lays the foundations of nature.
~ Emerson, Essays. 1st Series, ‘Intellect’ (CW 2:345-346)
In what I call the cyclus of orphic words, which I find in Bacon, in Cudworth, in Plutarch, in Plato, in that which the new Church would indicate when it speaks of the truths possessed by the primeval church broken up into fragments and floating hither and thither in the corrupt church, I perceive myself addressed thoroughly. They do touch the intellect and cause a gush of emotion which we call the moral
sublime; they pervade also the moral nature. Now the universal man, when he comes, must so speak. He must not be one-toned. He must recognize by addressing the whole nature.
~ Emerson, J 4.154 (1836)
You shall not read newspapers, nor politics, nor novels, nor Montaigne, nor the newest French book. You may read Plutarch, Plato, Plotinus, Hindoo mythology and ethics.
~ Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, ‘Inspiration’ (CW 8:295)
And as man is the object of Nature, what we study in Nature is man…. For Nature is only a mirror in which man is reflected colossally. Swedenborg or Behman or Plato tried to decipher this hieroglyphic, and explain what rock, what sand, what wood, what fire signified in regard to man.
~ Emerson, Natural History of Intellect, and Other Papers, ‘Country Life’ (CW 12: 164-165)
The purple light of Plato which shines yet into all ages, and is a test of the sublimest intellects.
~ Emerson, J 3.419 (1834)
~ Emerson, J 3.489 (1835)
I read the Timaeus in these days, but am never sufficiently in a sacred and holiday health for the task. The man must be equal to the book. A man does not know how fine a morning he wants until he goes to read Plato and Proclus.
~ Emerson, J 6.213 (1842)
Bregman, Jay. “The Neoplatonic Revival in North America.” Hermathena, No. 149 (Special Issue: The Heritage of Platonism), Winter 1990, pp. 99–119.
Brown, Stuart Gerry. Emerson’s Platonism. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Sep., 1945), pp. 325–345.
Cameron, Kenneth Walter. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Reading. Haskell House, 1941 (rev. 1962).
Dombrowski, Daniel A. Thoreau the Platonist. Peter Lang, 1986.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Centenary Edition. Houghton Mifflin, 1903–4. [Cited as CW, followed by volume no. and page(s)]
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes. 10 vols. Houghton Mifflin, 1909–14. [Cited as J, followed by volume no. and page(s)]
Flanagan, G. Borden. “Emerson’s Democratic Platonism in Representative Men.” In: Alan Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk (eds.), A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, University of Kentucky, 2011, pp. 415–449.
Harrison, John Smith. The Teachers of Emerson. New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1910.
Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self. Ch. 7, The Platonic Quest in New England, pp. 189–211. Oxford University Press, 2009 (orig. 1997). (An earlier version appeared as: Daniel Walker Howe, The Cambridge Platonists of Old England and the Cambridge Platonists of New England, Church History Vol. 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 470–485.)
Pollock, Robert C. A Reappraisal of Emerson. Thought, Volume 32, Issue 1, Spring 1957, pp. 86–132. Reprinted in: Harold C. Gardiner (editor), American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal, New York: Scribner, 1958 (pp. 15–58) and in Arthur S. Lothstein, Michael Brodrick (eds.), New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century, SUNY Press, 2008 (pp. 9–48).
Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. University of California, 1995. (See especially. pp. 65f.)
Van Anglen, K. P. “Greek and Roman Classics.” In Joel Myerson and Sandra Harbert Petrulionis (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, Oxford University, 2010, pp. 3–8.
Woelfel, James. The Beautiful Necessity: Emerson and the Stoic Tradition. American Journal of Theology & Philosophy, Vol. 32, No. 2 (May 2011), pp. 122–138.