Ralph Waldo Emerson's Mentor at Harvard: Professor Levi Frisbie, Jr

By Vaughn, Gerald F. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Mentor at Harvard: Professor Levi Frisbie, Jr


Vaughn, Gerald F., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


A day after the death of Harvard professor Levi Frisbie, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist, poet, and philosopher who studied under Frisbie at Harvard, was writing in his daily journal of men with "minds of republican strength and elegant accomplishments. Such a one died yesterday, Professor Frisbie will hardly be supplied by any man in the community."1

Terence Martin writes:

Deeply influential as a teacher, Levi Frisbie was the first Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity at Harvard (1817-1822). His Inaugural Address (1817) indicates his regard for the ideas of Common Sense philosophy, Indeed, Scottish realism, adapted to circumstances as it could be, fit very well the provisions of the John Alford estate for establishing a chair of philosophy: It could encourage religious and civic responsibility by reminding man of his duties as a human being and by showing 'the coincidence between the doctrines of revelation and the dictates of reason,' never losing sight of 'the absolute necessity and vast utility of a divine revelation.

John Alford, who died in September 1761, endowed this chair by his will. However, not until 1817 had sufficient funds accumulated to make the first appointment.2

Josiah Quincy, Harvard class of 1821, studied under Frisbie and went on to become president of Harvard. In Quincy's history of Harvard University, he wrote:

Few men have left deeper traces of their moral and intellectual excellence in the memory of their contemporaries than Mr. Frisbie. In the collegiate circle in which he moved, he was the object of universal confidence and affection. He united a classic taste with great acuteness of intellect and soundness of judgment; and with a mind highly gifted and highly cultivated, rich in the powers of conversation and research, he regulated his life by a standard of moral and religious principle exquisitely pure and elevated.

Writing many years later, Quincy also said of Frisbie:

He had lost the use of his eyes for purposes of study, but the clearness and condensation of his thought, as well as the exquisite finish of the language in which it was conveyed, showed that his mind had not suffered from the deprivation.3

Samuel Gilman, another of Frisbie's former students, wrote:

In 1817 Levi Frisbie, a name dear to the scholars of his own generation,...was transferred to the new chair of Alford Professor of Moral Philosophy, which, for five years preceding his death, he adorned with a felicity of analysis, and a charm of eloquence, rarely surpassed.

In recognition of his reputation as a scholar, Frisbie was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.4

To what extent was Frisbie Emerson's mentor at Harvard? The evidence is circumstantial, yet strong and convincing, that Frisbie was instrumental in Emerson's intellectual development. Ralph L. Rusk writes of Emerson:

Essays and themes were to him the most exciting academic exercises. But the study of philosophy, though Dugald Stewart's elementary philosophy and William Paley's moral philosophy were required texts in both junior and senior years, could stir him. He was even enthusiastic about Stewart's success in making a textbook glamorous and was struck by what he regarded as the Scot's brilliant promise of effects that were to follow from the new analysis of the human mind.5

While a student a Harvard, in 1820 and 1821, Emerson wrote two Bowdoin Prize essays, "The Character of Socrates" and "The present State of Ethical Philosophy," neither of which was published at the time. Regarding the latter essay, D. H. Meyer declares:

In this essay, Emerson announced that in the nineteenth century ethical studies would be called upon to perform an important social function.... Emerson called for a public ethic to guide the liberated conscience.

Though Emerson's prescient plea was not heard outside the walls of Harvard, his hope was largely realized as moral philosophy came to hold an exalted position in the debate on public issues throughout most of the nineteenth century. …

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