Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Superstitions of our Age (August 1847)

An American essayist, poet, and popular philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) began his career as a Unitarian minister in Boston, but he achieved worldwide fame as a lecturer and as the author of such essays as "Self-Reliance," "History," "The Over-Soul," and "Fate." He influenced generations of Americans, from his friend Henry David Thoreau to John Dewey. In Europe he influenced the writings of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who took up such Emersonian themes as power, fate, the uses of poetry and history, and the critique of Christianity.

The Superstitions of Our Age:

The fear of Catholicism;

The fear of pauperism;

The fear of immigration;

The fear of manufacturing interests;

The fear of radicalism or democracy;

And faith in the steam engine.

Document Analysis

  1. What is “pauperism”?

  2. Why would faith in the steam engine be so significant to the period in which Emerson wrote?

  3. Considering that Emerson wrote during the nineteenth century, why would he include the fear of democracy?

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