Echoes of Paine: Tracing the Age of Reason through the Writings of Emerson

By Webb, Joe | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), September 2006 | Go to article overview

Echoes of Paine: Tracing the Age of Reason through the Writings of Emerson


Webb, Joe, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


In our country's brief history, no philosopher has cast a longer shadow over the great plains of American thought than Ralph Waldo Emerson, the prolific "sage of Concord." An active lecturer and essayist for more than fifty years, Emerson has been revered since his death by a wide range of Americans--from presidents to novelists to humble outdoorsmen. Even Woody Hayes, the controversial Ohio State football coach of the 1960s and 70s, declared that when it came to literature, Emerson was the captain of his starting eleven (Mort 64). A staple of the American literary canon, the revered writer and speaker is widely credited by high school teachers nationwide with championing the mid-nineteenth-century transcendental movement, bringing Americans closer to nature, and developing a new national identity based on self-reliance. All of these statements are largely true, but unfortunately their widespread acceptance has contributed to the American myth of Emerson, a myth that obscures certain other aspects of his philosophy. Though almost sanctified now, the great thinker was in his day the acme of radicalism--particularly in the theological community. As Donald Gelpi notes in his chronicle of Emerson's spiritual quest, "religious passion inspired almost everything Emerson wrote" (3), and thus we would be foolish to ignore the theological roots of Emerson's essays. The very skepticism that led Emerson away from orthodox Christianity also led to the development of his transcendental spirituality, and ultimately to his status as a present-day icon of American individualism.

We see this skepticism throughout the writings of Emerson, where we are presented with the picture of a man struggling to achieve a more personal relationship with the God of creation. In his essays and lectures, he challenges his audience to pursue this same line of inquiry, most notably in "The Divinity School Address" of 1838. Over time and through this incredible struggle (along with the help of Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott, among others), Emerson built an army of followers devoted to a transcendental reflection of God manifested in the daily surroundings of nature. The natural spirituality he espoused was both personally satisfying to his legion of devotees and rational in its empirical basis, emphasizing observation and reflection. In fact, during a series of lectures commemorating the work of Emerson in 1885, three years after his death, Edwin Meade told a Boston crowd that "The Divinity School Address" was "the first free and full utterance of rational religion in America" (235). Though it is true that Emerson's address was "free and fully rational," he was not the first person in America to make his transcendental claims. Meade went on to state incorrectly that "of all the great religious thinkers of America, and almost of our time altogether, Emerson has been perhaps the most impatient of the Church and its doctrinal statements" (237). Here again, the devoted follower of Emerson was either uninformed or unwilling to acknowledge the theological predecessors of Emerson. Many of the philosopher's thoughts can be found in the writings of scholars from the previous Age of Enlightenment, most specifically those who found support for their views on rational religion in the words of Thomas Paine, particularly the scientific deists and their seminal text--Paine's The Age of Reason. Echoes of Paine's work can be found throughout Emerson's most famous essays.

Another 1885 quote by Meade can serve as an introduction to Paine's influence on Emerson. In the opening of "Nature," Emerson speaks of a search for "an original relation to the universe." Meade explicates these lines, claiming that Emerson describes "the spirit ... and it is in the enforcement of this that he comes into collision with the Church upon its three doctrines of Miracle, the Bible, and Christ. His demand throughout is for an original relation [to God] and a uniform and universal law" (239). …

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