Photo courtesy of the concord museum

Photo courtesy of the concord museum

There were widely diverse influences on Ralph Waldo Emerson's life and thought: his own experience, his classical and theological education, the people he knew, and those whose lives he studied.

A voracious reader of biography, philosophy, history, literature and poetry, Emerson's "philosophy" took shape in a world rich with resources of his own gathering: of books, travel, nature, and a broad acquaintance with the folk of his town and the great thinkers and actors of his time.

A representative list of notable influences:

Mary Moody Emerson

A Genius always new, subtle, frolicsome, judicial, unpredictable…

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Aunt Mary Moody Emerson exerted a powerful influence on him from his days as a youth.  She was self-educated, widely read and described by her nephew as “the best writer in Massachusetts.” She exhorted her nephews to “always do what you are afraid to do,” and by her insistence set standards for their intellectual growth. Emerson copied out some of her letters into four substantial notebooks later in his life and constantly referred back to her maxims and her influence.

Literary Influences

Some books leave us free and some books make us free.

In Concord, Emerson was surrounded by creative thinkers, writers, social activists and leaders. His own library, and the wide variety of  books which he read and reread, provided rich sustenance for his ever-curious mind. 

Emerson returned to Plato continuously, to better understand him, and to affirm his own conviction that “ideas are real because they are the forms and laws that underlie, precede and explain appearances.” (From Robert Richardson’s Mind on Fire).

Sampson Reed’s Observations on the Growth of the Mind illuminated Emerson's understanding of Swedenborg, and of the concept that God is in everything.

Samuel Coleridge's Aids to Reflection steered Emerson to merge thoughts and ideas from Plato and other writers of the past with more recent authors and poets, helping him to understand the power of self.

Emanuel Swedenborg,  an 18th century scientist, founded Swedenborgianism and wrote about the relationship among the natural, scientific and divine worlds.  In Emerson’s 1833 lecture The Uses of Natural History, he comments, “The whole of nature is a metaphor or image of the human mind.” Swedenborg’s teachings on the connection between the mind and nature greatly influenced Emerson.

Victor Cousin, a French philosopher who sparked in Emerson a life-long interest in Asian philosophy.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), an eminent German writer, whose views on science and nature inspired Emerson, and played into his first book, Nature.  Goethe had written “Every natural form to the smallest, a leaf, a sunbeam, a moment of time, a drop, is related to the whole, and partakes of the beauty of the whole.”  Emerson wrote “Goethe teaches courage.” 

Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish writer who became a cherished friend and correspondent of Emerson, after they met in Scotland. Carlyle’s State of German Literature spurred the move by Emerson and others to Transcendentalism.

William Wordsworth, the English poet, whose work Emerson read extensively and whom Emerson met in England.  Emerson, also a poet, is said to have known much of Wordsworth’s poetry by heart.