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Emerson was one of five surviving sons who formed a supportive brotherhood, the financial and emotional leadership of which he was increasingly forced to assume over the years."Waldo," as Emerson was called, entered Harvard at age fourteen, taught in the summer, waited tables, and with his brother Edward, wrote papers for other students to pay his expenses.
Emerson is often characterized as an idealist philosopher and indeed used the term himself of his philosophy, explaining it simply as a recognition that plan always precedes action.
For Emerson, all things exist in a ceaseless flow of change, and “being” is the subject of constant metamorphosis.
In the individual can be discovered all truths, all experience.
For the individual, the religious experience must be direct and unmediated by texts, traditions, or personality.
In his lifetime, Ralph Waldo Emerson became the most widely known man of letters in America, establishing himself as a prolific poet, essayist, popular lecturer, and an advocate of social reforms who was nevertheless suspicious of reform and reformers.
Emerson achieved some reputation with his verse, corresponded with many of the leading intellectual and artistic figures of his day, and during an off and on again career as a Unitarian minister, delivered and later published a number of controversial sermons.Equally important to his intellectual development was the influence of his paternal aunt Mary Moody Emerson.Though she wrote primarily on religious subjects, Mary Moody Emerson set an example for Emerson and his brothers with her wide reading in every branch of knowledge and her stubborn insistence that they form opinions on all of the issues of the day.Not surprisingly, some of Emerson’s key ideas are popularizations of both European as well as Eastern thought.From Goethe, Emerson also drew the notion of “bildung,” or development, calling it the central purpose of human existence.While providing Emerson's growing family and array of dependents with a steady income, the lecture tours heightened public awareness of Emerson's ideas and work.From 1840-1844, Emerson edited The Dial with Margaret Fuller.What is beyond nature is revealed through nature; nature is itself a symbol, or an indication of a deeper reality, in Emerson’s philosophy.Matter and spirit are not opposed but reflect a critical unity of experience.Mary Moody Emerson was at the same time passionately orthodox in religion and a lover of controversy, an original thinker tending to a mysticism that was a precursor to her nephew's more radical beliefs.His aunt's influence waned as he developed away from her strict orthodoxy, but her relentless intellectual energy and combative individualism left a permanent stamp on Emerson as a thinker.