5 Fantastic Philosophies Writers Can Use: Thinking like Ralph Waldo Emerson

America’s main man when it comes to philosophizing, Emerson made philosophy accessible and even fun for people. We can learn a lot from Emerson to use in our writing. He’ll make you think, that’s for sure. Here’s 5 philosophical ideas to kick start your writing.

#1: Defy stereotypes

If you’re looking through his writing for an organized manifesto, don’t bother. His style is rambling, anecdotal, analogical, and allegorical. He’s all over the place. But there’s big fat six carat diamonds of ideas everywhere you look throughout his writing.

He can’t be labeled or pinned down. He’s much bigger than any one idea:

  • A Romantic in his pursuit of the unattainable reconciliation of opposites
  • A Realist in “speaking the rude truth” about life
  • An Idealist in believing there’s a deeper truth behind all appearances
  • A Naturalist in depicting nature as a force that determines your fate

He’s all those things and so much more…

#2: Transcend

One of the key developers of Transcendentalism—a philosophy with roots in the Europeans Carlyle and Kierkegaard—Emerson forged its American brand. A transcendentalist:

  • Looks for a reality beyond materialism and reason
  • Aspires to a high idealism, transcending this world
  • Holds to a “moral law” through which man can discover the nature of God
    • A living spirit of God, not—Emerson believed—the conventionalized, formalized, fundamentalized God of Christianity
    • God reveals himself everywhere and at all times
    • Nature is the revelation of God
    • Uses intuition as the primary faculty for perceiving and understanding the world
    • Seeks his Over‑soul: the universal, collective unconsciousness, or Spiritus Mundi. He believed we all share common thoughts and ancient, mythical properties that our intuition can tap into.

#3: Organicize

By organicism, Emerson meant “the marriage of thought and things.” You can make use of this theory by:

  • Choosing just the right word, “not its second cousin,” as Twain said.
  • Using physical things as metaphors or images of unseen spiritual forces, loaded with extra meanings, such as:
    • Melville’s Moby Dick
    • Wordsworth’s lakes and fields of wildflowers
    • Twain’s Mississippi river
    • Composing stories with a transcendent unity:
      • Where the Me and the Not‑Me are joined
      • All of nature, including the body, is Not‑Me; only the soul is Me
      • 60 years later or so, W.B. Yeats called this “There”, where the opposites interpenetrate.

#4: See and Be “Sublime”

Beautiful word, “sublime.” It’s a feeling you get when things aren’t just pretty or picturesque, but when they strike you as “awesome.” I put quotation marks around “awesome” because we’ve worn that word out so badly, it’s lost its meaning. When something is truly “awesome,” you’re struck dumb beholding it.

Try for the Sublime, in your writing through descriptions that are:

  • Like a child seeing something for the first time
  • Written with an “innocent eye” or a “transparent eyeball”
    • Emerson felt we all need a “general education of the eye”
    • As in movies where an innocent, helpless character wanders through a dangerous hood, looking all around with unafraid curiosity
    • As in a trusting and mellow state of mind
    • Fresh with dazzling, surprising details
    • Appreciative of the wonder of creation

As Emerson’s protégé, Henry David Thoreau, said: “Wisdom does not inspect but behold.”

#5: Live a Life of Self‑Reliance

Emerson took Calvin’s work ethic, common sense, and man’s need for sheer survival instincts, and rolled them up into his principle of Self-Reliance. Nothing really new to human history, but new to philosophy, new for a piece of writing. His essay by the same name is at once philosophical, witty, wise, and full of excellent advice for all people— including writers. How so?

  • No one’s going to hold your hand at the keyboard. If you want to write great works, you have to do it yourself.
  • Heroic characters are almost all self-reliant. Who doesn’t like stories about heroes, small or large, famous or anonymous? They make for great plots and compelling reading.
  • A terrific way to get an idea for a story—a springboard or starting off point, a theme or inspiration—is to start with a great quote. Read these incredible Emerson quotes and tell me you couldn’t write a story about any of them?
    • “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”
    • “Speak the rude truth.”
    • “Whoso would be a man must be a non‑conformist.”
    • “Trust thyself.”
    • “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
    • “To be great is to be misunderstood.”
    • “Traveling is a fool’s paradise”

Read and absorb some Emerson. He’ll inspire you to rely on yourself, identify and break through stereotypes, thereby transcending your environment and organically growing your mind and senses, your talents and strengths, all the while seeking, appreciating and living the sublime life.

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