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When scholars discuss the limitations of Emerson’s writing about the East, they often refer to the essay “Plato; or the Philosopher,” published in in 1850.
The curriculum focused on Greek and Roman writers, British logicians and philosophers, Euclidean geometry and algebra, and post-Enlightenment defenses of revealed religion.
As his journals and library borrowing records attest, however, in his spare time, Emerson paid keen attention to the wider European Romantic interest in the “Orient” or the “East,” which to him meant the ancient lands and sacred traditions east of classical Greece, such as Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, China, and India.
Instead, Emerson urges Indians to resist the shackles of the British Empire as forcefully as they should resist the mental chains of religious superstition.
He exhorts ordinary Indians to look upon the example of post-revolution America as an emblem of what a modern democratic nation could achieve.
Along with Emerson, the New England Transcendentalists were an eclectic group of religious, literary, educational, and social reformers that included Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau.
The movement grew out of Unitarianism in the greater Boston area; was deeply influenced by British and German Romanticism, especially as interpreted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and revolved around a form of philosophical and spiritual idealism that valued intuition over the senses.
Emerson’s engagement with Eastern cultural sources is also evident in his poetry from the 1840s.
For example, inspired by his reading of Persian verse, Emerson wrote “Saadi” in 1842, a poetic tribute to the aphorist, panegyrist, and lyrical poet of the same name.
And yet Emerson’s conceptualization of the East in the “Plato” essay poses problems that are worth noting.
As scholars have observed, when Emerson claims to speak about “Asia,” he seems to have India in mind (that is, the country with the “social institution of caste”).