How Transcendentalism Can Save Your Life

Ralph Waldo Emerson illustration by Tim Botta

The following is my preface to a new, gender-neutral edition of The Philosophy of Emerson, a book of Ernest Holmes’s annotation of the Transcendentalist philosopher published by Newt List press.

Is there an American spirituality? One with no specific church or rulebook, but that weaves through our religious culture and self-help traditions? I say there is — and it can be found in the pages of this brief, powerful book.

The Philosophy of Emerson exposes us to the intermingled voices of Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and mystic Ernest Holmes (1887–1960). These two iconic figures gave voice to a single vision: Our minds are endowed by God with creative properties, and what we think determines, literally, what we experience.

This philosophy, sometimes called New Thought, runs through America’s vast self-help literature and is found in the hearts of much of the public, who believe, rightly, that the individual can surpass what is said to be factually achievable.

The Philosophy of Emerson does more than highlight the ideas of two great seekers. It shows how all ideas emanate from One Source.

In the past, I have referred to the metaphysics of positivity as “Applied Transcendentalism” — and this book reminds me why. Emerson and Ernest Holmes worked more than a generation apart but came from the same New England climate of spiritual radicalism and experimentation. Entering early adulthood, both thinkers grew convinced that ideas about God and higher laws, if they are authentic, must be instructional and practical. Spiritual insight is self-help, or it is no insight at all.

While still in his early twenties, Ernest, an aspiring writer and philosopher, found in Emerson a thinker who catalyzed his own ideas about the creative properties of the mind. Beginning around 1907, when Ernest turned 20, he bounced between his childhood home in Lincoln, Maine and the cultural thoroughfares of Boston, where the youthful seeker absorbed a wide range of spiritual teachings, including the Christian Science theology of Mary Baker Eddy. Although Ernest deeply admired Mrs. Eddy, only in Emerson did he find the simplicity and naturalness of thought that helped him frame and express his own insights. When Ernest began writing about the causative powers of the mind, his tone came from Emerson: Ernest sought to develop not a set of codified strictures but rather an open-ended body of principles on how to live a dynamic and creative existence.

Ernest thrilled to Emerson’s core idea, which appears throughout this volume: There is no difference between a mental and spiritual act. The very act of thinking is, in itself, an expression of the Creator. Ernest already had the words to express this; but Emerson put the steel of intellectual confidence into his spine. In Emerson’s work, Ernest encountered the same thoughts that he had felt himself; he was astonished to discover within the words of a great, validated, and hallowed philosopher the very things that he had reflected upon while wandering the fields of central Maine.

This kind of self-recognition, this stumbling upon one’s most intimately felt truths in the work of another, Emerson taught, is a natural law: All truth across time, if it is enduringly true, is one and the same. Whatever great thing you or I may think today was once thought by Moses, Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, Teresa of Avila. Greatness and truth are not functions of individual genius any more than electricity is a function of conductive wires. We are all channels and receptors; the more receptive we are, the greater the truth that flows through us. As Emerson wrote in History: “There is one mind common to all individuals. Everyone is an inlet to the same and to all of the same.” (My quotes reflect the gender-neutrality of the present edition.)

This universal over-mind can raise us to extraordinary heights; albeit ones for which we are suited by temperament and training. “When we are in line with spiritual laws,” Ernest observed, “we are automatically propelled into right action and easy accomplishment.”

Ernest Holmes illustration by Tim Botta

Ernest drank in Emerson’s insights on worldly achievement: Do not elbow for personal gain, or be clever in money-getting or any other worldly pursuit; rather, be so unencumbered by guile or craftiness as to be set into flight by the patterns and energies of creation, and clothed in the goodness of the natural world like the lilies of the field.

This was the shared vision of Emerson and his soon-to-be influential admirer. It is a vision that, in various forms, traverses today’s religious landscape.

Ernest insisted that Science of Mind, as he called his own transcendental philosophy, must be “open at the top” — that is, porous and naturally changeable as nature’s laws become more visible to the seeker, and as we learn new methods and techniques to see clearly. Here, too, we find the influence of Emerson. The Yankee sage inveighed against scholasticism and overly complex pedantry. Emerson’s work rescued the impressionable young Ernest from formulating a religious doctrine and setting a wall around it. Rather, Emerson emboldened Ernest to create a kind of anti-doctrine: to simply announce the presence of vital, natural laws, and then challenge the reader to test matters for himself.

As I’ve noted, both Emerson and Ernest said much about throwing aside your small ambitions so as to merge with the stream of natural laws and be lifted in their currents. None of this, however, means abandoning your sense of individuality. “Everyone has this call of the power to do something unique,” Emerson wrote in Spiritual Laws, “and no one has any other call.”

We situate ourselves in the flow of spiritual laws when we listen to that call that draws us nearer to what we love, toward what is natural and easy — not “easy” in a frivolous or lazy sense, but in the sense that our personal powers are engaged in effortless play. As Ernest put it: “Each person is an individualized center of God-conscious life and divine action. Each is a unique individualization. When people obey the dictates of the inner voice, they find every pathway open before them.”

If this book leaves you with one lesson, let it be from this statement by Emerson: “The soul’s emphasis is always right.” That exquisitely simple principle guided Ernest on his life journey, and confirmed for him his style of thought and expression. Let it guide you, too.

Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian and the author of Occult America and One Simple Idea, a history and analysis of New Thought. Visit him at

Tim Botta’s artwork appears at and Fine Art America.

Originally published at on May 18, 2016.

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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