Transcending Emerson

When running in the mountains, I’ve seen many footprints on the paths.  Sometimes I’m reminded of people like John Burroughs, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau, who wandered the forests during the 19th and early 20th century, experiencing nature as a source of beauty, strength, and inspiration.  There are older tracks, too, for behind these figures lurks another spirit:  Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the essayist, lecturer, poet, and father of the American Transcendentalist movement.

I hadn’t read Emerson since college, but one day it occurred to me that there could be a connection between “Transcendentalism” and the sport of ultra-running, if for no other reason that those who run longer distances than the conventional 26.2-mile marathon, are driven in part to do so by a desire to “transcend” perceived limits.  I began to wonder, might ultra-runners be carrying Emerson’s banner, without even knowing it?


I dusted off some old college textbooks and rediscovered a voice that was powerful but also somewhat divisive.  Emerson is celebrated as the champion of individualism, the enemy of conformity, the “theologian of the American religion of self-reliance.”  Think of him as the original motivational speaker.  But critics find his worldview too “radically self-centered,” while some readers are put off by his “uncompromising rectitude” and lack of sympathy.

Further research revealed that Emerson’s views, and more broadly the 19th century Transcendental movement, are based in part on the idea of a “Universal Nature,” which can be thought of as the source of all knowledge and the force of life, of which each person is but “one more incarnation.”  The Universal Nature transcends the details of individual experience and is the underlying cause of all things:

There is, at the surface, infinite variety of things; at the centre there is simplicity of cause.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

A person experiences the Universal Nature, Emerson explains, through intuition:  “that gleam of light that flashes across his mind from within.”  These flashes make human life “mysterious and inviolable.” And because these are flashes of the truth, you must “insist on yourself; never imitate.”

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Himself a priest, Emerson detested his peers, whom he found inauthentic purveyors of stale doctrine.  “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” he wrote and so he acted, giving a speech at Harvard critiquing modern Christian beliefs that was so inflammatory he was not invited back for thirty years.

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson is bold and invigorating.  But we need to make some adjustments to his logic, otherwise his advice points in directions that ultimately don’t make sense.

For example, take his attitude toward the man in the street.  The ignorant and poor are to be ignored, he believed, as they comprise an “unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society.”

The sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

That there is no “deep cause” to the opinions of common people seems to fly in the face of Emerson’s statement that a “simplicity of cause”  underlies the variety of life.  If common people don’t participate in the Universal Nature, then it is not very universal.

Also problematic is Emerson’s fear that if we don’t speak out, then others will voice our opinions first.  Even the most “spontaneous impressions,” he warns, should be proclaimed quickly:

Else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s a little surprising to associate “shame” with hearing someone convey a shared opinion.  If human knowledge is a function of the Universal Nature, then we should expect peers to express many of the same universal truths.

Let’s tweak Emerson’s vision.  Let’s drop the spiritual/mystical connotations, and instead define the Universal Nature as the genetic heritage encoded in our DNA, which contains the cumulative intelligence of the evolutionary process since the beginning of life on Earth.  As revised the concept is still consistent in spirit with Emerson’s vision:

We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

The key word is “activity.”  Flashes of intuition don’t necessarily represent “truth” (everyone know this from personal experience) but the flashes do serve as a call to action.  Our genetic heritage encodes goals, directions, priorities:  raise a family, start a businesses, support a cause, create art, ponder life.  We are the “organs of activity” that carry out the priorities.  Actions speak louder than words:

To create, — to create, — is the proof of a divine presence.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

For Emerson the priest-turned-scholar, “to create” was to lecture and write; hence his preoccupation with bold, new, nonconforming opinions.  But for most people, it’s OK to share views with others.  Whether to speak first or listen — this is a tactical judgment.  For most of us, to create is to make decisions and take action in pursuit of goals.  If we do so, Emerson suggests life will be good, but it will be new and different, too:

When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; — the way, the thought, the good shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience.

That human experience should be “wholly strange and new” is for me the heart of Emerson’s vision.  From an evolutionary perspective, every generation embodies a different mix of traits and faces a novel set of challenges.  The flash of intuition, the call to action issued by the “immense intelligence” that resides in our shared genetic heritage, pushes us by necessity onto new and unknown paths.  We may follow footprints for a distance, but eventually they peter out and we’re stepping into the unknown.

Ultra-runners may indeed be among Emerson’s disciples.  The sport is about pushing past conventional limits, and when we do so, the feeling of exhilaration is powerful.  Soon we’re stepping up to a longer distance, a tougher course, new challenges of terrain, heat, cold, hunger, thirst, exhaustion — and each experience is indeed “wholly strange and new.”

Having rediscovered Emerson, I’m encouraged to keep pressing onward to the mountain peak, even when there is no trail.

How about you?

Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon! (Click on the image to check it out)


Transcending Emerson

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