35-Year-Old Emerson’s Extraordinary Harvard Divinity School Address on the Divine Transcendence of Nature
In praise of the sentiment through which the soul comes to know itself.
By Maria Popova
I have long considered the commencement address the secular sermon of our time — the greatest commencement addresses deliver precisely the kind of well-packaged, eloquent, enchanting advice on what it takes to lead a good life that we used to find in worship services. But on July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson took the podium before the graduating class at what is now the Harvard Divinity School to deliver a powerful and immeasurably beautiful speech that bridged these two traditions — the religious sermon and the secular packet of life-advice — unlike anything before or since, so incendiary in its ideas that it led the Harvard authorities to ban Emerson from campus for thirty years.
He was only thirty-five.
Found in his altogether indispensable Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the source of Emerson’s enduring wisdom on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, what beauty really means, and how to live with maximum aliveness — the speech is notable both for its substance and its place in time: Emerson wrote it in the midst of a deeply religious era, more than two decades before Darwin penned On the Origin of Species and formulated his theory of evolution, and was addressing a graduating class of divinity students. And yet despite that — or, rather, precisely because of it — what makes his speech so extraordinary is that he extolls a sort of secular spirituality nearly two centuries before our contemporary conceptions of it. Emerson admonishes against superstition and dogma, instead championing a “religious sentiment” — the era’s term for spirituality — predicated on moral virtue, a philosophy of presence, and a reverence of nature.
In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man!
A century and a half before Hannah Arendt made her elegant case for how our unanswerable questions make us human, Emerson argues that these are precisely the kinds of questions sparked in the human mind when we behold nature’s beauty and with with the awe it produces in us:
What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. Behold these outrunning laws, which our imperfect apprehension can see tend this way and that, but not come full circle. Behold these infinite relations, so like, so unlike; many, yet one. I would study, I would know, I would admire forever. These works of thought have been the entertainments of the human spirit in all ages.
But from this awe, Emerson observes, springs an inquiry far more profound — one that has to do with the meaning of the good life:
A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue… He learns that his being is without bound…
The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish details, principles that astonish… This sentiment is the essence of all religion.
We now know, indeed, that this virtuous disposition is at the heart of the Golden Rule, a version of which is a centerpiece of all major religious traditions. Emerson considers the deeper moral impulse beneath the teachings of virtue:
The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.
He turns to truth as the ultimate moral beauty:
Speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.
From this moral aspiration, Emerson argues, springs what we call spirituality:
The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is its power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world. It is myrrh and storax, and chlorine and rosemary. It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the universe made safe and habitable…
This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself.
In an admonition particularly poignant and timely in our era of divisive dogma, Emerson argues that spirituality cannot be taken on faith, as it were — it is not the result of preaching or dogma absorbed from the outside but a sentiment to be cultivated on the inside, a private “conversation with the beauty of the soul.” Emerson writes:
Whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.
Once again, Emerson astonishes with his capacity for holding duality — the hallmark of the truly enlightened mind. Here he is, delivering an address at the world’s foremost divinity school, and yet advocating for what is essentially a proto-version of the critical thinking Carl Sagan championed a century and a half later in his famous Baloney Detection Kit.
Emerson was well ahead of his time — and perhaps even of ours — in more ways than one. More than a century before Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, he argues that these spiritual-moral values are best cultivated, and have been for millennia, “in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East.” With an eye to these Eastern traditions, Emerson envisions a new spiritual movement that integrates these ideas into Western life:
I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men … and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.
Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, it bears repeating, is a magnificent and existentially necessary read in its hefty totality. Sample it further with Emerson on why we resist change, the true measure of friendship, and how beauty bewitches the human imagination, then complement this particular meditation with a contemporary counterpart: Sam Harris on how to cultivate spirituality without religion.
Published July 15, 2015