“Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.” These immortal words, published in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance in 1841, represent just one of the thousands of shimmering diamonds of wisdom imparted by the man known as the “Concord Sage.” Emerson beautifully espoused the virtues individualism. Reading Emerson’s prose is a laborious process but one that yields infinite rewards.
As in life, the amount of heart and soul you bring to bear when reading Emerson’s essays, poems and lectures will be reflected in what you take away. “Insist on yourself; never imitate,” Emerson wrote in Self-Reliance. He consistently called upon his readers to be still and listen to their inner voice, and then act on that eternal wisdom within. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” Emerson also states in Self-Reliance. His series of essays laid the foundation of modern American philosophy.
Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience also stands to this day as a pillar of modern American thought. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau wrote, “’Government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe — ‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which the will have.” Thoreau and Emerson were contemporaries and good friends.
In fact, it was Emerson’s little cabin at Walden Pond where Thoreau did some of his finest work. The values of simple living and self-sufficiency are at the heart of Thoreau’s writings, in particular Walden. Like Emerson, Thoreau ascribed to the American transcendentalist philosophy, which focuses on breaking the bonds of this earth and listening to the impulses of one’s soul and intuition.
Among ancient Eastern philosophers, Confucius is arguably the most familiar to the Western world and perhaps the most quotable. “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest,” Confucius wrote. A Chinese philosopher who lived from 551 BC–479 BC, Confucius’ collection of thoughts was developed into a school of thought known as Confucianism.
Confucius is perhaps best known for everyday, practical wisdom like, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” If one studies quotes by Confucius, they may begin to see his philosophy reflected in modern self-help books. “The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence,” Confucius wrote.
Known as the “Father of Modern Philosophy,” Ren Descartes had a profound influence on Western philosophy. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is required reading for most college philosophy majors. A mathematician, Descartes is forerver immortalized by the Cartesian coordinate system, which introduced geometric shapes into the discipline of algebra. Descartes is known as the father of analytical geometry and a key player in the Scientific Revolution. The innovation that Descartes brought to philosophy is a questioning attitude. Considering that humans rely on their five senses to interpret the world around them, and that our senses can deceive us, Descartes believed the essence of seeking truth is questioning our reality. “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things,” Descartes wrote. To his credit, Descartes also include concrete life advice in his wisdom. “It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well,” he wrote.
“Flexibility is the key to immortality,” Chopra, an Indian physician and author, stated during an episode of “Iconoclasts” on the Sundance Channel. The show was designed on the premise that two maverick-like individuals who admire one another spend a couple of days together with cameras following them around. Chopra’s admirer — Mike Myers of “Saturday Night Live” and Austin Powers fame. “If you want to reach a state of bliss, then go beyond your ego and the internal dialogue,” Chopra once wrote. “Make a decision to relinquish the need to control, the need to be approved, and the need to judge. Those are the three things the ego is doing all the time. It’s very important to be aware of them every time they come up.” Chopra makes frequent appearances on talk shows, such as “Larry King Live,” to give an Eastern philosophical perspective on the issues of the day. Chopra’s wisdom offers a refreshing perspective in the chaotic modern world.
Who said Socrates didn’t have a sense of humor? “My advice to you is get married: If you find a good wife you’ll be happy; if not, you’ll become a philosopher,” the Greek philosopher once wrote. Socrates also observed, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Where would we be without Socrates’ wisdom or the brilliant writings of his star pupil, Plato? The Socratic method of asking students questions to not only elicit answers but inspire critical thought and analysis is one of the Greek philosophers greatest gifts to Western philosophy.
Plato’s apprentice, Aristotle carried on the philosophical tradition of Socrates. A gifted writer, Aristotle wrote on a broad range of subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics and biology. In this respect, Emerson emulated Aristotle.
The true test of any philosopher is how relevant their words remain over the course of centuries. “A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion,” Aristotle once wrote. “Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.” Sound familiar, anyone?
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS
A 13 th century priest and philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas had a firm grasp of dialectics. “Good can exist without evil, whereas evil cannot exist without good,” Aquinas wrote.
The basic teachings of the Dalai Lama center on compassion, forgiveness and the pursuit of happiness. Considering the suffering of the Tibetan Buddhist leader at the hands of the Chinese government, it makes his teachings resonate with the ring of truth. “All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives…. In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher,” writes the Dalai Lama.
Arthur Schopenhauer , a 19 th century German philosopher known for his atheistic pessimism and philosophical clarity. Schopenhauer’s words could be some consolation to former vice president Al Gore. “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed.
Third, it is accepted as being self-evident,” writes Schopenhauer.