Emerson in Good Times and Bad

“The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”

  Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Waldo EmersonEmerson is considered one of America’s most influential philosophers. A prolific essayist and speaker, he had a tremendous influence on the public-at-large during his lifetime. He was also instrumental in the intellectual development of such notables as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and William James—to name only a few. That’s not to say that folks today find him an easy read. Emerson’s style of writing was constrained by neither theme nor the logical development of an argument. Instead, his essays seem to mirror his thought process.  Undoubtedly, a large part of his continuing appeal is that he is so quotable. The man who gave us aphorisms like, “Hitch your wagon to a star,” “All mankind loves a lover,” “To be great is to be misunderstood,” and “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons,” is simply bound to enjoy some renown.

Emerson A Crank?

As brilliant and as quotable as he was, Waldo Emerson was also something of a crank. He was ordained as a Unitarian minister and almost immediately had a falling out with his denomination over theological issues. Though he turned down a pastorate, he continued to preach by invitation and in 1838 was invited to deliver the graduation address at the Harvard Divinity School. The address turned out to be an indictment of organized religion. Three decades would pass before Harvard invited him back. Similarly, although an ardent abolitionist, he was suspicious of reformers. This extended to the transcendental movement as well. While he supported the experiment in communal living at Brook Farm, he refused to participate. While Emerson’s approach to society may have seemed cantankerous, it was perfectly consistent with his principle belief that mankind’s chief vice is conformity and its chief virtue is self-reliance. In Emerson’s view, the self-reliant individual is responsible for everything in their life. The extent to which hopes and aspirations are realized is an individual responsibility. The extent to which life’s inevitable calamities are overcome is an individual responsibility. And the extent to which each of us draws satisfaction from our own efforts is up to us and is not dependent on the praise and adulation of others.

Are You “Emersonian”?

In this regard, it seems that a lot of people are Emersonians without realizing it. These are the folks that quietly go about doing their business without the expectation of a lot of fanfare or reward. You probably don’t notice them until some disaster strikes or threatens. They’re the ones that clear the roads, get the power back on, keep fresh water running and handle a hundred things that you don’t notice until they go away. These self-reliant folks don’t make a lot of money and they don’t get much recognition, but without them, millions of us would be absolutely miserable. Some of them thrive on the adrenalin of working a crisis. Others would prefer to be doing something else. No matter their preferences, they come together, look out for one another and get the job done. When they’ve picked up the pieces and set things right, they go back to their routine and we go back to ours. But maybe we should all pay a little more attention to the people we count on to keep things running smoothly in fair weather and foul. They may not crave attention, but they probably don’t want to be taken for granted either. When the next storm is over be sure to say thanks. And on the next sunny day—when everything is working normally—say thanks again.           —Ebert

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