BECK index

Emerson's Philosophy of Education

by Sanderson Beck

The Soul

May the fire of intellect, the soul's light to mind
Show us the torchbearer's path to the height he climbed,
And may the material of thought fuel the flame of insight
On the journey of our souls in the quest for right.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, nineteenth century poet and visionary essayist, elucidated a philosophy of life based on the inner resources of the self and revelation from the divine presence of the soul. Although Emerson regarded and learned from the great minds of the past, he continually emphasized that each person must live now according to his own insight. Let us see if we can comprehend something of the essence of Emerson's ideas especially as they apply to education.

Emerson's spiritual philosophy is similar to the religious thought of ancient India with which he was acquainted, ideas which go back at least 3,000 years to the Vedas. However, the truth may be spoken in any language, and we must not hasten to conclude that he merely adopted the Hindu religion, but rather that he found there corresponding ideas to the illumination he received from his own soul and experience in life. In his essay "Compensation" which describes the spiritual law of karma, or cause and effect in human action, he indicates he discovered this principle himself although it has been known for millennia in India and is similar to Greek notions of justice and retribution.

Ever since I was a boy I have wished to write a discourse on Compensation; for it seemed to me, when very young, that on this subject life was ahead of theology, and the people knew more than the preachers taught. The documents, too, from which the doctrine is to be drawn, charmed my fancy by their endless variety and lay always before me, even in sleep; for they are the tools in our hands, the bread in our basket, the transactions of the street, the farm, and the dwelling house, greetings, relations, debts and credits, the influence of character, the nature and endowment of all men. It seemed to me, also, that in it might be shown men a ray of divinity, the present action of the soul of this world, clean from all vestige of tradition; and so the heart of man might be bathed by an inundation of eternal love, conversing with that which he knows was always and always must be, because it really is now.

The laws of God are continually taking place in the intermingling of human lives. The effect of gravity is heedless of human discovery or comprehension of it. Does not love quicken us as a living presence? And what is yesterday's love but a memory? The intellect is an active or potential agent in every living soul. Let us then utilize yesterday's tradition as a memory, but not to deaden our thought and insight of today.

The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?

In his essay on "Nature" Emerson reveals the essence of his philosophy: "Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul." This has been stated before in the Sankhya philosophy of India and also by Bishop Berkeley. Spirit, or the oversoul which includes all individual souls, is the eternal essence of an infinite absolute reality which creates all the transitory phenomena of Nature The Sanskrit terms are Purusha which means Person and Prakriti meaning Nature.

The Soul

Before describing Nature let us turn to Emerson's essay on "The Over-Soul" to see if we can get some glimpses of understanding about the spiritual essence.

The philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve. Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence.

With all the fragmentation of consciousness there is an underlying unity of being which is the pure energy source of all life and consciousness, the "wise silence" which enables us to comprehend universal truth and beauty, which animates us with love for all creatures; the "eternal ONE" in the absolute center relates all the parts and diverse elements into an integrated wholeness. When this soul manifests itself through a personality we call it integrity of character which transcends all philosophy and thought by the presence of its beingness.

As Berkeley attempted to point to the active creativity of the soul beyond the world of ideas or any other expression of creation so too does Emerson attempt "to indicate the heaven of this deity and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law."

All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie, - an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.... When it breathes through his intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection, it is love. And the blindness of the intellect begins when it would be something of itself. The weakness of the will begins when the individual would be something of himself. All reform aims in some one particular to let the soul have its way through us; in other words, to engage us to obey.

Here is the key that finds its expression through the individual of self-reliance who draws from the soul within this inner power, omniscience, and compassion which is the source of all benign greatness, while the individual who separates his ego from the transcendent ideals of love, truth, beauty, and justice which emanate purely from the soul casts off the source of goodness. The soul cannot be adequately defined or described, but as the reality of our being, it is the only thing we can be absolutely certain of since all other phenomena are transitory.

Of absolute importance to living as well as education, is that we have continual access to this divine energy.

As there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so is there no bar or wall in the soul, where man, the effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins. The walls are taken away. We lie open on one side to the deeps of spiritual nature, to the attributes of God. Justice we see and know, Love, Freedom, Power.... The heart which abandons itself to the Supreme Mind finds itself related to all its works and will travel a royal road to particular knowledges and powers. In ascending to this primary and aboriginal sentiment we have come from our remote station on the circumference instantaneously to the center of the world, where as in the closet of God, we see cases and anticipate the universe, which is but a slow effect.

Revelation is this process of communion with the soul, "an influx of the Divine mind into our mind," which enables us to know the truth when we see it and to perceive new truths by this intuition. Great scientists such as Edison and George Washington Carver have admitted that their discoveries came from a higher or divine source. The soul reveals "perceptions of the absolute law. They are solutions of the soul's own questions. They do not answer the questions which the understanding asks. The soul answers never by words, but by the thing itself that is inquired after." It is the function of the intellect to formulate concepts in words.

The unity of the over-soul finds confirmation in the communication between individuals which implicitly requires the sharing of the essence and abilities to understand.

Persons themselves acquaint us with the impersonal. In all conversation between two persons tacit reference is made, as to a third party, to a common nature. That third party or common nature is not social; it is impersonal; is God.

The greatness of the soul can be seen in the child whose consciousness has learned so little, but is so capable of learning and responding with its beingness.

As it is present in all persons, so it is in every period of life. It is adult already in the infant man. In my dealing with my child, my Latin and Greek, my accomplishment and my money stead me nothing; but as much soul as I have avails. If I ml willful, he sets his will against mine, one for one, and leaves me, if I please, the degradation of beating him by my superiority of strength. But if I renounce my will and act for the soul, setting that up as umpire between us two, out of his young eyes looks the same soul; he reveres and loves with me.

Is this not a key to the divine relationship which can facilitate the processes of teaching and learning?

The spirituality of our being teaches much more than our conscious intents realize.

That which we are, we shall teach, not voluntarily but involuntarily. Thoughts come into our minds by avenues which we never left open, and thoughts go out of our minds through avenues which we never voluntarily opened. Character teaches over our head. The infallible index of true progress is found in the tone the man takes. Neither his age nor talents, nor all together can hinder him from being deferential to a higher spirit than his own. If he have not found his home in God, his manners, his forms of speech, the turn of his sentences, the build, shall I say of all his opinions will involuntarily confess it, let him brave it out how he will. If he have found his center the Deity will shine through him, through all the disguises of ignorance, of ungenial temperament, of unfavorable circumstance.

Thus the teacher who has attuned one's consciousness to the center that is the soul becomes a channel for the spiritual energies which enlighten and inspire.

"The same Omniscience flows into the intellect and makes what we call genius." Yet "the soul is superior to its knowledge, wiser than any of its works.... Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul." How does one gain this access to the divine? Perhaps it is simply letting it be, and allowing our consciousness to be receptive to its influx of energy by being aware of the divine presence in the here and now. Humans may transcend their limited concepts by realizing that God does exist and will reveal many things to us if we open ourselves to the divine.

The soul gives itself, alone, original and pure, to the Lonely, Original and Pure, who, on that condition, gladly inhabits, leads and speaks through it. Then is it glad, young and nimble. It is not wise, but it sees through all things. It is not called religious, but it is innocent. It calls the light its own, and feels that the grass grows and the stone falls by a law inferior to, and dependent on, its nature. Behold it saith, I am born into the great, the universal mind. I, the imperfect, adore my own Perfect. I am somehow receptive of the great soul, and thereby I do overlook the sun and the stars and feel them to be the fair accident and effects which change and pass. More and more the surges of everlasting nature enter into me, and I become public and human in my regards and actions. So come I to live in thoughts an act with energies which are immortal. Thus revering the soul, and learning, as the ancient said, that "its beauty is immense," man will come to see that the world is the perennial miracle which the soul worketh, and be less astonished at particular wonders; he will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred.

If we examine history with the eyes to see it, we find the divine sovereignty of the soul manifest throughout human progression, especially in the great saints, teachers, scientists, and artists who demonstrate the creative intelligence which derives from the soul.


The soul is the creative essence, while all of creation, including art which is human collaboration with natural phenomena, is referred to as Nature. Nature is not only material phenomena but also the process and result. In Nature the soul sees the reflections of its own pure essence manifest, perceiving beauty, truth, and goodness in its laws. To describe the natural facts of phenomena humans use words as signs for language communication. From Emerson's transcendental viewpoint the natural facts are also symbols of spiritual facts or principles. Thus "Nature is the symbol of spirit." The intellect then is able to formulate these principles into laws, for "all science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature."

These laws of nature have analogies on many levels as the metaphors of poetry reveal. The myriad facts of Nature in life's experience is the school for the understanding, a discipline for the intellect in learning how to master matter. "Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and Mind." From the moment the soul enters the physical body at birth, there is a continual learning process of how to operate the body, the senses, and the mind in adapting to the environment and cooperating with other people. "What tedious training, day after day, year after year, never ending, to form the common sense."

O, but what sovereignty over this material world is gained by the human spirit! All of Nature is here to serve us, for us to utilize, and to learn the laws of phenomena and life. Yet Nature is a severe task-master, pardoning no mistakes, nor bending it's God-created law for any person. Rather humans learn to command its forces by obeying its laws. As Berkeley pointed out, the miracle is that the divine laws hold fast perfectly, not that they can be arbitrarily broken or interrupted. All scientific discovery of universal laws does not detract from God's sovereignty, but rather demonstrates its beauty, its order, its magnificence. For all scientific principles of nature are at best second principles, created by the ultimate first cause of God's holy writ. The more the intellect ascertains these laws the more humans can comprehend the divine order and plan of this universe, the perfection of its balance and its subtle diversity as a university for the education of human souls.

In God, every end is converted into a new means. Thus the use of commodity, regarded by itself, is mean and squalid. But it is to the mind an education in the doctrine of Use, namely that a thing is good only so far as it serves.

By interacting with Nature people learn not only what is practical but also what is good. "The moral law lies at the center of nature and radiates to the circumference.... The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him." Consider all the lessons that go into maintaining the life of the body: "What a searching preacher of self-command is the varying phenomenon of Health!" Due to its fundamental laws and principles, our experience with Nature and the creation of phenomena becomes practical lessons to our intellect which is capable of understanding and transcending these elements. For Emerson the soul and nature are perfectly complementary.

Thus to him, to this schoolboy under the bending dome of day, is suggested that he and it proceed from one root; one is leaf and one is flower; relation, sympathy, stirring in every vein. And what is that root? Is not that the soul of his soul? A thought too bold; a dream too wild. Yet when this spiritual light shall have revealed the law of more earthly natures,---when he has learned to worship the soul, and to see that the natural philosophy that now is, is only the first groupings of its gigantic hand, he shall look forward to an ever expanding knowledge as to a becoming creator. He shall see that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments. So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess. And, in fine, the ancient precept, "Know thyself," and the modern precept, "Study nature," become at last one maxim.


Emerson recommends the "education of the scholar by nature, by books, and by action." On Nature we have spoken. Books are useful as long as readers maintain their own creativity and autonomy of thought. The thinking reader refers the knowledge to the understanding of nature and the human constitution, but the bookworm makes a "sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. For Emerson thought must become action in order to be useful. "Only so much do I know, as I have lived." By practical experience we learn quickly and well. "He who has put forth his total strength in fit actions has the richest return of wisdom."

The deepest insights spring from that fountain within." He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds.... In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended." In his great essay on "Self-Reliance" Emerson urges us to realize our own greatness by calling upon our inner resources, for there lies our illumination. "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages." To maintain the integrity of one's own mind it is better to focus on one's inner development. "The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force."

When people exercise a greater independence and creative expression according to their inner guidance of what is right for them, then many beneficial changes will occur in society.

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.

Prayer will no longer be the begging for a particular commodity, but "the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view," and with that awareness the performance of all useful acts of service.

Emerson calls for education to be brave and preventive as the improving force of human nature. "It is inhuman to want faith in the power of education, since to meliorate is the law of nature; and men are valued precisely as they exert onward or meliorating force." In the long run education can supersede political and social reforms far more effectively than social legislation and coercion, for no reform is successful without awareness of the need for change and freely-given consent.

Emerson valued New England's attempt to universalize education through the common schools. Yet, of course, he had many suggestions for improving teaching. The greater teacher is the world by which we learn the laws of nature. Also the social world of the household and children's peers teach many human concerns with sympathy cultivating manners and social grace. To understand the higher spiritual laws we must look at the symbolism of experience and use the principle of analogy to elevate and universalize the meanings of life.

Whilst thus the world exists for the mind, whilst thus the man is ever invited inward into shining realms of knowledge and power by the shows of the world, which interpret to him the infinitude of his own consciousness,--- it becomes the office of a just education to awaken him to the knowledge of this fact.
We learn nothing rightly until we learn the symbolical character of life.

Emerson criticizes the limitations of the schools and points toward a liberating spiritual education. His comments are still relevant, perhaps more so now.

Our culture has truckled to the times, - to the senses. It is not manworthy. If the vast and the spiritual are omitted, so are the practical and the moral. It does not make us brave or free. We teach boys to be such men as we are. We do not teach them to aspire to be all they can. We do not give them a training as if we believed in their noble nature. We scarce educate their bodies. We do not train the eye and the hand. We exercise their understandings to the apprehension and comparison of some facts, to a skill in numbers, in words; we aim to make accountants, attorneys, engineers, but not to make able, earnest, great-hearted men. The great object of Education should be commensurate with the object of life. It should be a moral one; to teach self-trust: to inspire the youthful man with an interest in himself; with a curiosity touching his own nature; to acquaint him with the resources of his mind, and to teach him that there is all his strength, and to inflame him with a piety towards the Grand Mind in which he lives. Thus would education conspire with the Divine Providence.

As far as method goes Emerson places first a respect for the pupils, encouraging their virtues, but disciplining their vices.

I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained and he only holds the key to his own secret.

The points in training are Genius and Drill. Genius means allowing the child one's own inspiration and perception, and the search for one's own truth. "Always genius seeks genius, desires nothing so much as to be a pupil and to find those who can lend it aid to perfect itself." Drill involves giving the student practice in action that he may learn accuracy and precision. Once these are mastered in performance, they can be applied in many ways.

Emerson not only prophetically precedes the concepts of the wider view of progressive education, but also offers insights into the age-old "natural method" as better than new technology based on experimentation.

Whilst we all know in our own experience and apply natural methods in our own business,---in education our common sense fails us, and we are constantly trying costly machinery against nature, in patent schools and academies and in great colleges and universities.

The natural method forever confutes our experiments, and we must still come back to it. The whole theory of the school is on the nurse's or mother's knee. The child is as hot to learn as the mother is to impart. There is mutual delight. The joy of our childhood in hearing beautiful stories from some skillful aunt who loves to tell them, must be repeated in youth. The boy wishes to learn to skate, to coast, to catch a fish in the brook, to hit a mark with a snowball or a stone; and a boy a little older is just as well pleased to teach him these sciences. Not less delightful is the mutual pleasure of teaching and learning the secret of algebra, or of chemistry, or of good reading and good recitation of poetry or of prose, or of chosen facts in history or in biography.

Emerson laments how mass education ignores the geniuses and replaces teaching ardor and inventiveness with system, whitewashing over the unique talent.

You have to work for large classes instead of individuals; you must lower your flag and reef your sails to wait for the dull sailors; you grow departmental, routinary, military almost with your discipline and college police. But what doth such a school to form a great and heroic character?... Is it not manifest that our academic institutions should have a wider scope; that they should not be timid and keep the ruts of the last generation, but that wise men thinking for themselves and heartily seeking the good of mankind, and counting the cost of innovation, should dare to arouse the young to a just and heroic life; that the moral nature should be addressed in the school-room, and children should be treated as the high-born candidates of truth and virtue?

So to regard the young child, the young man requires, no doubt, rare patience: a patience that nothing but faith in the remedial forces of the soul can give... If he has his own vice, he has its correlative virtue. Every mind shouId be allowed to make its own statement in action, and its balance will appear.

Here is the great key to pedagogy: patience---patience to allow the student to learn in one's own way. Corporal punishment is quick and easy, but it does not work well in the long run, while loving patience and careful discipline with the assistance of God are able to help shape a character which will become strong and capable.

Now the correction of this quack practice is to import into Education the wisdom of life. Leave this military hurry and adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience.... Can you not baffle the importance and passion of the child by your tranquillity ? Can you not wait for him, as Nature and Providence do?... He has a secret; wonderful methods in him; he is,---every child,---a new style of man; give him time and opportunity. Talk of Columbus and Newton! I tell you the child just born in yonder hovel is the beginning of a revolution as great as theirs. But you must have the believing and prophetic eye. Have the self-command you wish to inspire. Your teaching and discipline must have the reserve and taciturnity of Nature. Teach them to hold their tongues by holding your own. Say little; do not snarl; do not chide; but govern by the eye. See what they need, and that the right thing is done.

Teachers may use the masculine power of the will for discipline, and the feminine power of sympathy for nurturing understanding. Have rules, but let them be broken for any noble heroic, or studious deed. Emerson concludes his essay on "Education" with the following advice to teachers:

To whatsoever upright mind, to whatsoever beating heart I speak, to you it is committed to educate men. By simple living, by an illimitable soul, you inspire, you correct, you instruct, you raise, you embellish all. By your own act you teach the beholder how to do the practicable. According to the depth from which you draw your life, such is the depth not only of your strenuous effort, but of your manners and presence.

The beautiful nature of the world has here blended your happiness with your power. Work straight on in absolute duty, and you lend an arm and an encouragement to all the youth of the universe. Consent yourself to be an organ of your highest thought, and lo! suddenly you put all men in your debt, and are the fountain of an energy that goes pulsing on with waves of benefit to the borders of society, to the circumference of things.

Copyright 1996 by Sanderson Beck

Emerson's Transcendentalism

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