Student Work for Philosophy 3387

American Philosophy

Emerson and the Eastern Tradition

Francesca Mabarak

Phil 3387

for: C. Freeland

Emerson's philosophical writings are rich in their appreciation of eastern philosophy, particularly that of the ancient traditions of India. Emerson's work reflects upon the natural order of nature and its ability to organize our experience. Emerson's thought is not based on an extrinsic idea of order that can be imposed from the outside in, rather it reflects a natural order that has existed for thousands of years. This shift in paradigm from man having the power to control and organize his world to one where he lives in harmony with the present order is not one that is easily received by many Americans. Such writers as Cornell West has deeply criticized Emerson's relationship to this ideal. Many say that Emerson was not active enough in his quest to bring about social change and that his ideas were dubious and difficult to understand because of their lack of systematization.

However, Emerson's intent was not to build a system, but to get others to recognize a system already at work within nature. He is not the creator of these ideas as they date back thousands of years ago and are an inherent part of our world. Many people are reluctant to buy into his philosophy because it is not systematized enough. Individuals are often scared off by the idea that they cannot control the world and predict the future. This is unsettling for many.

Emerson is trying to show that as is nature, so is the individual. Nature is always in a constant state of flux and change as is the individual. One would thing that this philosophy would fit well into an American paradigm as we are a nation of many traditions and cutures. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As a nation we tend to try to unify our world by understanding our differences rather than our similarities. If we all viewed each as being a part of a bigger whole, possibly this unification could take place and have a meaningful effect on our lives together.

In Emerson's essay "Circles" he reflects many of these ideas clearly and distinctly. I hope to share with you some ideas from Eastern philosophical literature, by different authors, that will make clear the origin of the thought that Emerson is trying to share with us.

"By the end of this year, 98 percent of the atoms in your body will have been exchanged for new ones." In this world, nothing is as permanent as our impermanence, Emerson writes, "Permanence is a word of degrees."

"You can change your world-including your body-simply by changing your perception." If one perceives himself as being stuck in the world, he indeed will be, only as much as one see's the world as unpredictable, can he find freedom. Emerson writes, "Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations."

"Life is awareness, awareness is life." Emerson writes, "Our moods do not believe in each other." They do not believe in each other because they are forever changing. This is natural as nature itself, and this is what keeps our mental life moving on.

John Muir writes, "Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe." Emerson writes, "Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens."

"Don't we live in the same objective world?" a disciple once queried his guru, "Yes" his master replied, "but you see yourself in the world, I see the world in myself. This minor perceptual shift makes all the difference between freedom and bondage."

For Emerson, living in the present and acknowledging it was of the highest importance. There was no need to jump on a soap box to teach these lessons as they are natural and only require a personal awareness and responsiability to learn them. Silence can be as good as any argument because it stands in respect to nature. Good and evil, true and false are all ideas created by man in order to make judgments. Nature does not make judgments but works in accord with its willingness to witness and be a testament to the present moment.

Emerson writes, "Thus there is no sleep, no pause, no preservation, but all things renew, germinate and spring. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." Embracing our nature is what Emerson has eloquently asked us to do. So that just as nature runs its cycles, we can draw our circles.

© Copyright 1996 Francesca Mabarak

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