Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 5 Big Rules of Life

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 5 Big Rules of Life January 18, 2024

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Andrew Jenkins via Unsplash

Have you ever purchased a book from Amazon and, when you received it, thought that maybe you got ripped off? The site is full of self-published books on various subjects and while some are worth your time, there are others that have been dashed off by the author in hopes of making a quick buck, complete with ill-gotten 5-star reviews.

Such was the initial case when I purchased Living from the Soul: The 7 Spiritual Principles of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Sam Torode. I’m a fan of Emerson, was interested in a refresher course, and ordered the well-reviewed book. Only to find that, minus the appendix, the slim book was only 67 double-spaced pages long. (Compare that to my newly published 372-page single-spaced tome.) But to my delight, I found that Torode has packed a lot of wisdom into this thin book, capturing the essence of Emerson’s core teachings.

How much do you know about Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Previously, I called him “the godfather” of the American spirituality movement and for good reason. Way back in the 1830’s, Emerson broke out of the religious box and, through a series of speeches and books, introduced America to several concepts that are the bedrock of the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) movement today.

His story is fascinating. A graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, Emerson followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, becoming a minister at a Unitarian church in Boston. But in his late-20s, less than 2 years into his ministry and a few months after his young wife died, he quit the church. Way ahead of his time, Emerson found the Biblical lessons he was teaching were stale, and the rituals of the church archaic.

After spending a period of time in contemplation, Emerson embarked on a new cause: he would tell all who would listen about spirituality, a way to connect with the Divine without the constraints of religion. He published scores of essays and books and, in this pre mass-media time frame, spread the word by crisscrossing the country giving speeches, delivering over 1,500 during his lifetime.

The writings and speeches of Emerson require some translating.

It can be a daunting task to decipher Emerson’s work, as it is written in the often long-winded and flowery prose of its time. But take a deeper look at his speeches and writings, and there are many pearls to be found, striking wisdom that is as impactful today as it must have been nearly 200 years ago.

In Living from the Soul, Torode has expertly extracted seven core spiritual teachings of Emerson and presents them in modern-day language. I found it to be the refresher I was looking for and have further refined the list to five teachings. The words below are mostly Torode’s interpretations of Emerson’s essays and sermons, though I have done some additional editing and made some modifications to the list.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 5 Big Rules of Life

Rule #1. The soul is the ground of your being. A soul isn’t something that you have, like an arm or a leg. It’s more accurate to say that your soul has you. Within your soul, there’s a reservoir of insight, just waiting to be tapped. When you turn inward and connect to it, you have direct access to a deep pool of wisdom. The soul will illuminate your path. Trust it to guide your way.

Rule #2. Circumstances and events don’t matter as much as what you do with them. As Epictetus once said, “you can use any circumstance to your benefit.” Circumstances are neutral. It’s how you respond to them that determines whether they do you good or ill. An apparent evil is a blessing in disguise if it spurs you on to learning and growth.

Rule #3. All that you need for growth and guidance in life is already present inside you. We are all equipped with a compass that points to our proper path. Wondering about your purpose in life? Follow your inner calling, listen to the whisper heard by you alone, and do the work you are inspired to do. Keep on living and your life will be its own answer. Action comes before understanding.

Rule #4. Live in the moment. What good does it do you to dwell on yesterday or worry about tomorrow? It only unsettles your mind and depresses your spirits. To eliminate worry, shift your attention to the present moment. Live in the present. The present moment is your connection to life, your point of power.

Rule #5. To find God, go within. God is found within, not without. That’s the message of Jesus and all the mystics through the ages. The soul is the presence of God within you. It is the divine portal of which Jesus said, “Knock and the door will be opened. Seek and you will find.” When Jesus said “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” he was referring to the soul.

Continuing his thoughts on God, which are far different from the religious teachings of the time, Emerson adds:

If you keep searching for God outside yourself, you’ll never be at peace. But when you look within and find that God is in you—and you are in God—you will know a peace that surpasses all understanding.

Emerson had discovered what we all can. That a middle-man, aka the church, was not needed to access God. You and I have the inherent ability to do it on our own.

If you enjoy this story, you’ll find 112 just like it in my new book Wake Up Call: Daily Insights for the Spiritually Curious, now available from Wildhouse Publishing.

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