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A Journey not a Destination!

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By Syed M. Aslam

Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803- April 27, 1882) is one of the finest intellectual, philosopher, poet, and writer that America has ever produced. Emerson spent all his life trying to find answers to life’s greatest questions. He was far ahead of his times opposing slavery which was ‘legal’ then and which almost all his contemporaries favored at the time.

I got introduced to him many moons ago reading one of his essays, the name of which I don’t remember.

What earned him my instant respect was not only his humanity and humility but the pleasant surprise of quoting one of the most respected figures of Islam Hazrat Ali (RA) rampantly to stress a certain point. I was pleasantly surprised by him quoting Hazrat Ali to highlight the worthlessness of accumulating worldly wealth and gains that compared the useless worldliness with “the mucous oozing out of a donkey’s nose”.

Emerson quotes Hazrat Ali (RA) in his essays frequently. In his essay “Self Reliance” he wrote, “‘Thy lot or portion of life,’ said the Caliph Ali, ‘is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it. Our dependence on these foreign goods leads us to our slavish respect for numbers.’”

He also wrote in the same article, “Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife, – but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way”. In a speech known as “Politics” what he said still holds true 206 years after his death. He had said, “We live in a very low state of the world, and pay unwilling tribute to governments founded on force”.

I read many more essays and read whatever other matter I could lay my hands on in the pre-PC hard-copy era after that first interaction with Emerson- thoroughly spiritual as it is.

In the process I learnt that Emerson had shocked the Protestant USA while delivering a graduation address at Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School in 1938 when he proclaimed that though Jesus (Prophet Essa (AS) was a great man, he was not God” He had also said that “historical Christianity had turned Jesus into a demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo”. His comments outraged the establishment and yet he refrained from defending himself- others defended him. He was never invited again to speak at Harvard for the next thirty years.

During a tour of European in 1832 Emerson met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle during which he was strongly influence by Carlyle for whom he later serve as an unofficial literary agent in the US .

They remained in touch with each other corresponding until Carlyle’s death in 1881.

On August 31, 1837, Emerson delivered his now-famous Phi Beta Kappa address, “The American Scholar”, then known as “An Oration, Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society” at Cambridge”.

The speech was renamed and published as a collection of essays in 1849. In the speech, Emerson declared literary independence in the United States and urged Americans to create a writing style all their own and free from Europe. Emerson and other like-minded intellectuals founded the Transcendental Club in 1859, which laid down the ground for the beginning of Transcendental Movement.

The first official meeting of the Club was held on September 19, 1836. Emerson anonymously published his first essay, Nature, in September 1836.

He also befriended great naturalist and author of famed “Civil Disobedience” in 1837 Henry David Thoreau during this time.

Emerson opposed slavery fiercely in a time when it enjoyed fullest legal sanctity and protection in the US. He voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860’s presidential elections but was disappointed that Lincoln was more concerned about preserving the Union than eliminating the slavery.

He gave a public lecture in Washington D.C. on January 31, 1862, saying, “The South calls slavery an institution… I call it destitution… Emancipation is the demand of civilization”. The next day his friend Charles Sumner took him to meet Lincoln at the White House; his misgivings about Lincoln began to soften after this meeting.

By summer of 1871 Emerson continued losing his memory and suffered from aphasia. By the end of the decade, he forgot his own name at times and, when anyone asked how he felt, he responded, “Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but am perfectly well”.

On April 19, 1882, Emerson went walking despite having an apparent cold and was caught in a sudden rain shower. Two days later, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. The finest essayist that this world has ever produced who said that “Life is a journey, not a destination” passed away on April 27, 1882.

The man who taught that ‘the depth of life matters more than its length’ and that ‘life is not meant to be happy but is rather meant to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, and to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well” was laid to rest at Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts which is also the burial ground of many other famous men and women of letters including Emerson’s great student Henry David Thoreau and great author Nathaniel Hawthrone.

What earned him my instant respect was not only his humanity and humility but the pleasant surprise of quoting one of the most respected figures of Islam Hazrat Ali (RA) rampantly to stress a certain point. I was pleasantly surprised by him quoting Hazrat Ali to highlight the worthlessness of accumulating worldly wealth and gains that compared the useless worldliness with “the mucous oozing out of a donkey’s nose”.

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