This judgment of Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported by Julia Ward Howe in her Reminiscences: 1819-1899:
“Theodore Parker once said to me, ‘I do not consider Emerson a philosopher, but a poet lacking the accomplishment of rhyme.’ ”
Coming from Parker, who could at least pretend to be a philosopher/theologian, that’s a fairly harsh thing to say. After she reports Parker’s bon mot, Howe, who considered herself a poet, goes on to add her own judgment:
“This may not be altogether true, but it is worth remembering…. The deep intuitions, the original and startling combinations, the sometimes whimsical beauty of his illustrations,– all these belong rather to the domain of poetry than to that of philosophy…. Despite his rather defective sense of rhythm, his poems are divine snatches of melody….”
I think Howe and Parker are right: Emerson is more of a poet than a philosopher. Since Emerson remains the most important philosopher/theologian of North American Unitarianism, that has some interesting implications for who we are today.
Turns out Julia Ward Howe was emotionally a universalist, and had a fairly emotional “conversion experience”. When she recalled the moment when she discovered liberal religion, she emphasized the joy she found in the universalism of her Unitarian faith:
“Who can say what joy there is in the rehabilitation of human nature, which is one essential condition of the liberal Christian faith? I had been trained to think that all mankind were by nature low, vile, and wicked. Only a chosen few, by a rare and difficult spiritual operation, could be rescued from the doom of a perpetual dwelling with the enemies of God, a perpetual participation in the torments ‘prepared for them from the beginning of the world.’ The rapture of this new freedom [i.e., her new Unitarian faith] of this enlarged brotherhood, which made all men akin to the Divine Father of all, every religion, however ignorant, the expression of a sincere and availing worship, might well produce in the neophyte an exhilaration bordering upon ecstasy. The exclusive doctrine which had made Christianity, and special forms of it, the only way of spiritual redemption, now appeared to me to commend itself as little to human reason as to human affection. I felt that we could not rightly honor our dear Christ by immolating at his shrine the souls of myriads of our fellows born under the widely diverse influences which could not be thought of as existing unwilled by the supreme Providence.” [Reminiscences: 1819-1899, p. 207; gender-specific language in the original, obviously.]
One last comment: I believe that many newcomers to Unitarian Universalism today experience the same kind of joy at their discovery of this liberal faith as did Julia Ward Howe. Theological details may differ, but the joy at realizing that no one is going to be damned to eternal punishment still remains fresh.
I have been reading Julia Ward Howe’s Reminiscences: 1819-1899. After having been raised in a very well-to-do New York household, she married Samuel Gridley Howe in 1843, and they immediately embarked on a honeymoon trip to London (accompanied by no less than Horace Mann and Mary Peabody Mann). It was quite a wedding trip — she met Carlyle, Dickens, Landseer, and other London luminaries of that time. But what really struck me about this trip was her description of the breakfasts to which they were invited:
“The breakfast was at this time a favorite mode of entertainment, and we enjoyed many of these occasions. I remember one at the house of Sir Robert Harry Inglis, long a leading Conservative member of Parliament…. At this breakfast, he cut the loaf with his own hands, saying to each guest, ‘Yill you have a slice or a hunch?’ and cutting a slice from one end or a hunch from the other, according to the preference expressed.
“These breakfasts were not luncheons in disguise. They were given at ten, or even at half past nine o’clock. The meal usually consisted of fish, cutlets, cold bread and toast, with tea and coffee. At Samuel Roger’s I remember that plover’s eggs were served.”
I’m struck that it was worth remarking that one host actually cut the bread “with his own hands.” I’m also struck by the plover’s eggs.