- Emerson Between Faith and Doubt
In February 1827, Ralph Waldo Emerson walked the languid, decaying, nearly Old World streets of St. Augustine, Florida. He strolled along the beach past the ancient-looking walls of the colonial fort. He sat in shaded spots perhaps jotting notes, trying to compose a sermon. He attended a Catholic service and observed that the Spanish-speaking congregants understood neither the Latin liturgy nor the English homily. His own preaching, to visiting Northerners and Anglo Floridians, followed a Unitarian theology in which he no longer quite believed. Amid the palm trees, in the fertile abundance and soft sea air of a future tourist paradise, he meditated on life and death, the visible world, and the invisible power he wanted—had been taught by tradition—to discern. In this way, he was working through an American ambivalence.
Emerson had traveled south for his health—a chronic tubercular condition that would recur throughout his life. He was feeling “a certain stricture in the right side of the chest.” He had lost weight. But he was afflicted with a more spiritual malady, a sense of drift and disorientation, so he had come on a quest of sorts, in a society becoming more and more individualized and less attached to traditions. It was a search for—all at once—renewed vigor, a sense of success, a fulfilled self, and some redefined faith not neatly packaged and available in any sect that he could name. Emerson veered between faith and doubt, his doubt a sort of catalyst for a transformed faith that had as yet taken on no coherent form. Like some health spa philosopher, he reclined in the Southern warmth, thinking, as always, crisp New England thoughts. He recorded them directly in his journal, remarkably unadorned, mostly free of local color or the usual traveler’s observations:
Satisfy me beyond the possibility of doubt of the certainty of all that is told me concerning the other world and I will fulfil the conditions on which my salvation is suspended. The believer tells me he has an evidence historical & internal which make the presumption so strong that it is almost a certainty that it rests on the highest of probabilities. Yes, but change that imperfect to perfect evidence & I too will be a Christian. But now it must be admitted I am not certain that any of these things are true.(January 1827)
There is no palm at the end of the mind here, to use Wallace Stevens’s phrase; the [End Page 111] mind continues its perpetual turning, arriving repeatedly at alternating and nearly opposite views:
Yet I believe myself to be a moral agent of an indestructible nature & designed to stand in sublime relations to God & to my fellow men.(February 2, 1827)
There is nothing between us & the infinite Universe. So our life which had its beginning a few summers ago from a sorry succession of some dull material causes, walks with God on the other side thro’ time & chance, thro’ the fall of suns & systems, through unbounded ages, unhurt & immortal.(February 16, 1827)
These meditations persist through March and into April like the mental expression of his body’s rebalancing. Here in the journals, more than in the public essays, Emerson’s words reveal the inner effects of his encounters with believers and skeptics just as they help give voice to the believer-skeptic in himself.
On April 6, now in Charleston, he records that his weight as of 25 March had increased to 152 pounds, and in that same entry he celebrates a new friend:
I have connected myself by friendship to a man who with as ardent a love of truth as that which animates me, with a mind surpassing mine in the variety of its research, & sharpened and strengthened to an energy for action, to which I have no pretension by advantages of birth & practical connexion with mankind beyond almost all men in the world—is, yet, that which I had ever supposed a creature only of the imagination—a consistent Atheist, and a disbeliever in the existence, &, of course, in the immortality of the soul. My faith in these...