Emerson on Thomas Taylor and the Platonists

   Emerson was unquestionably greatly influenced by Plato and the Platonists; all who study his writings with care agree on this point.  Much of his thought is pure Platonism, adapted to the needs of those for whom he wrote and to whom he lectured: in fact he belongs to the Neoplatonic Succession.
   It is not perhaps very generally known that Emerson made his first Greek contact through the translations of Thomas Taylor (175801835).  The two were contemporaries, for Emerson was born in 1803 when Thomas Taylor was forty-five, and Taylor entered upon his larger life when Emerson was thirty-two.
   There is a possibility that Emerson may actually have met Thomas Taylor, for he paid his first visit to
England in 1833, when, it is recorded, he contacted Coleridge, Wordsworth and Carlyle.
   In English Traits1, Emerson, describing his visit to Wordsworth, writes:

‘We talked of English national characteristics. I told him it was not creditable that no one in all the country knew anything of Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, while in every American library his translations are to be found. I said if Plato’s Republic were published in England as a new book today, do you think it would find any readers? – he confessed, it would not: “And yet,” he added, after a pause, with that complacency which never deserts a true born Englishman, “and yet we have embodied it all.”’

From the foregoing, it looks as if Wordsworth himself was not very familiar with Thomas Taylor’s translations, not to mention his original works. Emerson, however, was deeply appreciative of Taylor’s greatness, and lost no opportunity of acknowledging his indebtedness to his inspiration.
   In his essay on Plato in Representative Men
2 , Emerson ranks Thomas Taylor with the Immortals.

‘Platonism! The Alexandrians, a constellation of genius; the Elizabethans, no less; Sir Thomas More, Henery More, John Hales, John Smith, Lord Bacon, Jeremy Taylor, Ralph Cudworth, Sydenham, Thomas Taylor, Marcilius Ficinus and Picus Mirandola.’ 

And this is company no better than he deserves.
   Emerson was not only familiar with ‘T.T.’s’ larger works, but also with those smaller volumes of which only a very few copies were printed. In Society and Solitude,in the essay on ‘Books,’3 he writes as follows:

‘If any one who has read with interest the Isis and Osiris of Plutarch should then read a chapter called Providence by Synesius, translated into English by Thomas Taylor, he will find it one of the majestic remains of literature, and, like one walking in the noblest of temples, will conceive new gratitude to his fellow men, and a new estimate of their nobility. The imaginative scholar will find few stimulants to his brain like these writers.’

It is good to find appreciation such as this. Thomas Taylor did not see it himself, for it was not written until 1870, after his death, but it would have delighted his soul, for such appreciation of his beloved Neoplatonism was rare in his day.
   In Emerson’s Journal, begun when he was only sixteen years of age and continued until he was seventy, we find many references to Thomas Taylor and his translations.
   Could he show greater enthusiasm than in the following entry?4  

‘It is curious that Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, is really a better man of imagination, a better poet, than any other writer between Milton and Wordsworth. He is a poet with a poet’s life and aims.’

Thomas Taylor has been named a ‘Gentile Priest,’ and Emerson recognizes his devotion, and his zeal for the spiritual reality of Greek religion and philosophy, as is shown in another entry in his Journal5:

‘Thomas Taylor would have preferred, to all meeting-houses and churches, to have restored the old native service of the temples on whose ruins these had been constructed.’

This comment also throws an interesting side-light on the merging of the old dispensation into the new; on the survival of churches with circular churchyards which were once the worshipping-places of the Druids in ancient days. Similarly, we might reasonably say that the thoughts and devotions of Plato and the Neoplatonists blossom again in the writings of Thomas Taylor and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

There are passages in the writings of Thomas Taylor which so impress Emerson that he copies them into his Journal as a source of future inspiration. This Journal is a quarry from which he extracts material for his Lectures and Essays. Often we find thoughts from this source worked into writings of a much later date.

The following significant passage from Thomas Taylor’s General Introduction to his Work of Plato (Vol. I, p. lxxix) is to be found in the Journal for 1844, Vol. VI, p. 509.

‘I conduct the reader through novel and solitary paths – solitary indeed, they must be, since they have been unfrequented from the reign of the Emperor Justinian to the present time; and novel, doubtless, to readers of every description, and particularly to those who have been nursed, as it were, in the bosom of matter, the pupils of experiment, darlings of sense, and legitimate descendants of the earth-born race that warred on the Olympian Gods.’

 (N.B more being added - 8 December 2006)

1. Chapter XVII, p180 Riverside Edition     2.  Riverside Edition, p. 41     3.  Riverside Edition, p.193     4.  Journal, Vol. VII, p. 361     5.  Vol. X, p. 185

 

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