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Emerson's philosophy still resonates

Born and died before America got household electricity and the automobile. Resigned as minister of a Unitarian church, disdaining Christianity and organized religion. Known today primarily in philosophy classes. As resumes go, Ralph Waldo Emerson's would not seem to qualify him as a role model for the 21st century. But author-educator Richard Geldard of New York would beg to differ. Emerson's reverence for nature and philosophy of a personal relationship with God, Geldard says, resonates in a country founded on individualism, where many people today call themselves spiritual, if not formally religious.

Geldard is one of three Emerson scholars who will speak about "Reawakening the American Soul" tonight at 7:30 in Faneuil Hall. Also speaking are Jacob Needleman and Robert Thurman.

What is the "American soul?"

The essential American soul, coming from our founders, is an unusual combination of the sovereignty of the individual, combined with our principle of religious freedom. There is no other country that was founded on those two principles side by side.

Fifty years after the founding, it was Emerson who actually articulated those two principles in the daily life of Americans. With Emerson, nature became the key, the American wilderness being a key to understanding who we are as a nation.

Why is that?

You have to go back to the Puritans huddling along the shores and regarding the wilderness as something fearful. When the Puritans came here, we weren't natives; we were sophisticated Europeans. The wilderness was a place where Satan lived. The witches in Salem were caught dancing in the woods. Emerson changed that. Emerson was born in the same year we made the Louisiana Purchase. We became enamored of the wilderness.

Why does the American soul need a reawakening?

As a result of the Industrial Revolution and mechanization, we became identified with work. We lost the sense that work is incidental to our being human beings. As Emerson said, we become the machines we work, instead of being a human being. We label one another by what we do. We took the wilderness and built national parks, and they became museums. We ceased to identify in any way with the wilderness.

Our lifestyle is less brutish than it was in Emerson's day. Wasn't industrialization inevitable and beneficial?

Not when it included our means of education. During the '20s, when Henry Ford became the hero of American culture, there was an important book, a guidebook to administrators of the nation's newly forming schools. [It] said, "Our schools are factories, in which the raw products, the students, are to be shaped and fashioned according to the specifications laid down."

That's appalling. Most educators followed this principle. We got saddled with these huge, factory schools as the one-room schoolhouses disappeared. We created these impersonal, hostile environments which we still suffer our children to pass through.

We need to reawaken this notion of individuality. Individuality is not taught in American schools, with the exception of the elite private schools.

There is nothing innately at fault with the Industrial Revolution, and life was brutish without it. [But] we identify with our products and spend our days leafing through the catalogs that come in the mail.

Emerson in the 1850s gave a speech to teachers. You see whether this is applicable today: "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 and what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained that he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing, he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child."

Today, the Waldorf schools probably are closest to Emerson's idea.

In a country with so many people belonging to organized religions, wouldn't Emerson's disdain for organized religion and Christianity leave him irrelevant to many Americans?

Emerson is a hero to the Unitarians and Universalists, because they have, I think, a more enlightened view of the individual religious experience.

Emerson's argument was that the fundamentalists guarded their religious principles and said, "follow me." We've had a long history in this country of rogue messiahs who have taken it upon themselves to say, "Don't you worry your pretty little heads about God. I'll tell you everything you need to know. Just write out a large enough check."

I think Emerson is not irrelevant. . . . Because of the notion of individualism, we have a strong sense that we have a personal relationship to the divine that we have almost a duty to pursue.

Rich Barlow can be reached at

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