Emerson - Critical Essays | TruthUnity
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On 15 July 1838 Emerson delivered what has come to be known as the "Divinity School Address" before the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School and their guests. In this important speech, which critic Joel Porte says Emerson was born to deliver, Emerson flung down a major challenge to Orthodox and even Unitarian Christianity. Emerson argues that the concept of the divinity of Jesus and the absolute authority of the Bible are obstacles to true religious feeling. This is not to say Emerson did not value the Bible. He did, and very highly; and this very address has been described as taking its form, that of the jeremiad, from a book of the Old Testament. What Emerson wished to do was to warn of the consequences of revering one text as the sole fountain of truth. To hold up the of the Bible as infallible was to divert attention from the of the text. "The idioms of his [Jehovah's] language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes." Furthermore, if the ancient Hebrew and Greek writings known as the Old and New Testaments respectively are regarded as the sole legitimate revelations, then we in the present age are contenting ourselves with this history of revelations to an earlier generation, and we are denying the possibility of a religion by revelation to us. "Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead." In order to affirm the possibility of a living religion for the present, one must be careful not to get caught in a system that believes no prophet since Jesus has anything to say and no text since the Bible has religious validity.
Stephen Whicher, “The Dream of Greatness”
Emerson's idealism is always mentioned in critical discussions of his thought. The equally important ethical aspect of his work is less often insisted upon. But Emerson's characteristically practical idealism cannot be fully appreciated until one recognizes that he evaluated all literature, all philosophy, all religion, by a simple ethical test: how does it help me to live a better life. has defined the moral element in literature as that which teaches us how to live. All of Emerson's idealist conceptions also meet this moral test, and those books which have served successfully over time as practical guides to conduct are the books Emerson values most highly. maintained in the "Preface to Shakespeare" that "nothing can please many and please long but just representations of general nature." Emerson used a similar criterion. The best ethical writers, he says, are those who write about "certain feelings and faculties in us which are alike in all men and which no progress of arts and no variety of institutions can alter," those writers, in short, who hold fast to "the general nature of man."