Ralph Emerson Essay On Compensation
Ralph Waldo Emerson—a New England preacher, essayist, lecturer, poet, and philosopher—was one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the 19th century in the United States.
Emerson was also the first major American literary and intellectual figure to widely explore, write seriously about, and seek to broaden the domestic audience for classical Asian and Middle Eastern works.
And yet Emerson’s conceptualization of the East in the “Plato” essay poses problems that are worth noting.
As scholars have observed, when Emerson claims to speak about “Asia,” he seems to have India in mind (that is, the country with the “social institution of caste”).
After he graduated from Harvard, Emerson’s enthusiasm for non-Western subjects waned, primarily because he devoted himself to becoming a Unitarian minister.
In 1831 Emerson’s wife, Ellen Tucker Emerson, died of tuberculosis, an event that galvanized a series of personal and professional changes in his life.
While at Harvard, Emerson had little opportunity to study the diverse literary and religious traditions of Asia or the Middle East.As a consequence, Emerson’s writing about South Asia (as well as China, Persia, and the Arab world) often traffics in the menagerie of 19th century Euro-American stereotypes and misconceptions.Examples can be found in Emerson’s “Indian Superstition,” a densely allusive poem that he composed for Harvard College’s graduation ceremonies in 1822.Moreover, in his published writings during this period, Emerson cited maxims, referred to prominent figures, and otherwise incorporated allusions drawn from Asian and Middle Eastern literatures with surprising regularity.He added these “lustres” to his nonfiction writing for at least two reasons.The curriculum focused on Greek and Roman writers, British logicians and philosophers, Euclidean geometry and algebra, and post-Enlightenment defenses of revealed religion.As his journals and library borrowing records attest, however, in his spare time, Emerson paid keen attention to the wider European Romantic interest in the “Orient” or the “East,” which to him meant the ancient lands and sacred traditions east of classical Greece, such as Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, China, and India.Emerson’s engagement with Eastern cultural sources is also evident in his poetry from the 1840s.For example, inspired by his reading of Persian verse, Emerson wrote “Saadi” in 1842, a poetic tribute to the aphorist, panegyrist, and lyrical poet of the same name.An aspiring poet, Emerson also gravitated to selections of poetry that took up Eastern themes and Eastern poetry, including the works of Saadi and Hafez, which he would embrace in adulthood.Like other Anglo-American readers of his period, Emerson relied heavily on British colonial agents for his knowledge of India, reading treatises, travelogues, and translations of legal, religious, and poetic texts produced in the wake of Britain’s imperial expansion into India.