Harvard Divinity School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Even though you knew the university was hostile to genius, you sent your children there and hoped for the best.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, regarding Harvard


It’s not unusual for politicians to use a small stage to address a larger audience. For instance, the occasion could be the grade school assembly of a small town, but, knowing the press would cover every word, the President might make statements that will be headline news with global implications. That is what Emerson did at Harvard.

When we think of major commencement addresses today, we think of stadiums, but when Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School on July 15, 1838, he was addressing six students.

Of course, he knew their families, friends and faculty would hear as well, but aiming much higher, he was launching a broadside attack on theologian Andrews Norton, a central figure at Harvard and on the school itself.

He was not invited back for thirty years.

The speech directs his anger toward religious observance of the day, which Emerson considered lifeless and misguided. He was not content to have his say on that day and despite his friends’ urging to the contrary, he printed and published the speech broadly. Norton himself declared war of sorts and fired off his own published reply entitled The Last Form of Infidelity.

By all measures it marked a seminal moment for Emerson and here he ended his preaching career to began his true vocation as a lecturer. That is both ironic and sad.

In the speech he said

I believe, with numbers, of the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not preached. The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct.

It’s clear that this was his conviction, but unclear whether he purposefully realized he was abandoning the very forum he lamented.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


Ralph Waldo Emerson attends Harvard

Boston-born Emerson (1803-1882) was a distinguished philosopher, poet, essayist and lecturer. His father, a Unitarian minister, died when Emerson was eight years old, and his mother struggled to raise five boys—including a mentally retarded son. With the aid of several grants and part-time work, however, Emerson was able to enter Harvard College when he was fourteen:

“Emerson’s Harvard was a small nondescript place, half boys school, half center for advanced study. It had fewer than two hundred fifty students. Emerson’s class had sixty, with most of the boys coming from Massachusetts and New England, and with 27 percent of the students coming from elsewhere. There was a marked southern presence … 18 percent were from South Carolina alone. In Emerson’s day, a student commonly entered college at thirteen or fourteen, graduating at seventeen or eighteen. As a result, college life had at times a certain rowdiness. In Emerson’s sophomore year, an epic food fight broke out on the first floor of University Hall. The fight quickly got beyond the throwing of food and almost all of the school’s crockery was smashed. But it would be a mistake to assume this was the dominant tone of college life. Young people grew up faster then. Emerson could read before he was three; he taught his first class at fourteen. Girls were little women, boys were little men. The curriculum shows that Harvard was not like either the high school or college of today; it offered a combination of basic and advanced studies, functioning as a sort of early college.

Emerson took the same set of required courses that everyone else did. He learned enough Greek to read both the Iliad and the New Testament. In Latin, he read Livy, Horace, Cicero, Juvenal and Persius, as well as Hugo Grotius’s De veritate religionis Christianae. He studied algebra, plane geometry, analytical geometry, and spherical geometry. He took Roman history in his freshman year, and in his senior year he studied the principles of American constitutional government, reading the Federalist Papers. In science, he did physics and astronomy as a junior, chemistry as a senior. …

Emerson: The Mind on Fire
Author: Robert D. Richardson Jr.
Publisher: University of California Press
Copyright 1995 by The Regents of the University of California
Pages: 6,7,9

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life