Emerson, Ralph Waldo | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’ - The New …

The first point is a theory of language which makes the distinction which the modern linguist Ferdinand de Saussure was to make famous, in his (1922), that words are not things, but "signs" standing for things. Words are signifiers, things are what are signified. The important distinction is between signifier and signified. Emerson claims that even those words which "express a mood or intellectual fact" will be found, when traced back far enough, to have a root in some material or physical appearance. Thus, he says, " originally means means ," and so on. This argument is, of course, an etymological not a semiotic one. But Emerson is not a positivist and could not rest with a flat distinction between words as signs or symbols of material objects, and material objects themselves, for this view leads inevitably to the view that the material or physical world is more "real" than words, which are only signs. Emerson here becomes hard to follow, claiming in point two that "it is not words only that are emblematic, it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact." (Insofar as Emerson means "idea" or "concept" when he uses the term "spiritual fact," this is close to a semiotic argument.)

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The text of these volumes is taken from the first edition of Cotton’s version, printed in 1685-86, and republished in 1693, 1700, 1711, 1738, and 1743. In the earliest impression the errors of the press are corrected merely as far as page 240 of the first volume; and all the editions follow one another. That of 1685-86 was the only one which the translator lived to see. He died in 1687, leaving behind him an interesting and little-known collection of poems, which appeared posthumously, 8vo, 1689.

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Another lecture in the "English Literature" series is called "Ethical Writers." The subject seems puzzling at first, but it is important for a full understanding of Emerson's conception of literature. There is a whole class of writers whose primary function is not entertainment, he says, "who help us by addressing not our taste but our human wants, who treat of the permanent nature of man." Such writers include, among the classics, , , Cicero, Marcus Aurelius. In English, the list includes Bacon, , Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, , and . Emerson also includes poets and playwrights in his list, but his emphasis is clearly on a kind of writing which is not fiction, poetry, or drama but primarily wisdom literature or moral literature, everything that we now place under the heading of nonfiction prose. It is a category that includes much of the best-and most helpful--writing ever done, a category in which Emerson himself now holds a high place.

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Some things did not slip through his fingers. Emerson could be a brilliant and pungent critic on occasion. In a letter to on 17 March 1840, he told her he had been reading "one of Lord Brougham's superficial indigent disorderly unbuttoned penny-a-page books called 'Times of George III,'" thereby describing a kind of book of which too many are published in every age. Emerson wrote for the notices of 's (1840), which he liked, saying "it will serve to hasten the day of reckoning between society and the sailor." He praised the poetry in 's (1839), "as sincere a litany as the Hebrew songs of David or Isaiah, and only less than they, because indebted to the Hebrew muse for their tone and genius." In a review of Tennyson, he commented, "So large a proportion of even the good poetry of our time is either over-ethical or over-passionate, and the stock poetry is so deeply tainted with a sentimental egotism that this, whose chief merit lay in its melody and picturesque power, was most refreshing." Emerson was also an early admirer of the poetry of and Ellery Channing. He was Carlyle's American agent, so to speak, and through Emerson's effort Carlyle's (1835) was published in book form in Boston before an English publisher could be found for it. When sent Emerson a copy of the first edition of (1855), Emerson wrote back an excited letter, calling the poems "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." He recognized the "great power" in the work and praised it for having "the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging."

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The essay makes one more important literary point. Emerson takes it as a welcome sign of the times that "instead of the sublime and beautiful, the near, the low, the common" was being explored and made into poetry. "I embrace the common," he says. "I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low .... the meal in the firkin, the milk in the pan." Like Wordsworth's call for a language of common men, this recognition of Emerson's went further than his own practice could usually follow. But Emerson's endorsement of common language had a powerful effect on the rising generation of young American writers, first on and , then on and others.