Ralph Waldo Emerson sought “to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he,” hence it is unlikely that he frets in his grave over the fact that academic philosophers still do not know what to make of him. Philosophy obsesses over knowledge, yet Emerson’s dominant passion was not to know but to grow. “Expression is all we want,” he wrote in his journals. “Not knowledge, but vent: we know enough; but have not leaves & lungs enough for a healthy perspiration & growth.”1
What must grow, ever anew, day in and day out, is one’s inner genius, which his essay “Self-Reliance” defines thus: “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.” In this respect the bloggers of our age have more Emersonian genius in them than our analytic philosophers, for good or ill.
In the quote from his journals, Emerson mentions expression and growth in the same breath. Self-expression through writing was an almost organic need of his, as if his genius received its daily bread from his pen. For over fifty years he spent a good part of his time writing in his journals, fostering the growth of that forever embryonic inner self whose health depended on it: “Writing is always my metre of health—writing, which a sane philosopher would probably say was the surest symptom of a diseased mind.” In this respect too, Emerson, like some other thinkers who were first and foremost writers (Nietzsche, for example), does not belong among the ranks of sane philosophers, for whom writing is the annotation, rather than flower, of thought. It is primarily for his prose that we read Emerson.
While I do not share the widely held view that his journals represent the crowning achievement of his writing career, there is no doubt that Emerson the journal keeper is a more full-bodied, historically situated, moody, and self-questioning author than the essayist. His journals were the incubator of his sermons, lectures, essays, poems, and translations, almost all of which received their first transcriptions there. Beyond this, they are, as he wrote to his friend Thomas Carlyle,
full of disjointed dreams, audacities, unsystematic irresponsible lampoons of systems, and all manner of rambling reveries, the poor drupes and berries I find in my basket after aimless rambles in woods and pastures.
The operative word is “full.” In addition to such miscellanea, the journals contain detailed accounts of Emerson’s readings, travels, personal relationships, economic transactions, existential crises, professional life, and incessant mood swings. So great was his need for daily expression that on those occasions when he had nothing to say (and they were many) he lamented his listlessness loquaciously.
A handful of specialists may feel obliged to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.