Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/168

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By Professor Chester Noyes Greenough

"HE IS," said Matthew Arnold of Emerson, "the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit." These well-known words are perhaps the best expression of the somewhat vague yet powerful and inspiring effect of Emerson's courageous but disjointed philosophy.


Descended from a long line of New England ministers, Emerson, finding himself fettered by even the most liberal ministry of his day, gently yet audaciously stepped down from the pulpit and, with little or no modification in his interests or utterances, became the greatest lay preacher of his time. From the days of his undergraduate essay upon "The Present State of Ethical Philosophy" he continued to be preoccupied with matters of conduct: whatever the object of his attention—an ancient poet, a fact in science, or an event in the morning newspaper—he contrives to extract from it a lesson which in his ringing, glistening style he drives home as an exhortation to a higher and more independent life.


Historically, Emerson marks one of the largest reactions against the Calvinism of his ancestors. That stern creed had taught the depravity of man, the impossibility of a natural, unaided growth toward perfection, and the necessity of constant and anxious effort to win the unmerited reward of being numbered among the elect. Emerson starts with the assumption that the individual, if he can only come into possession of his natural excellence, is the most god-like of creatures. Instead of believing with the Calvinist that as a man grows better he becomes more unlike his natural self (and