Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Archetypal Analysis

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The following is a short essay for a course on archetypal astrology that I took this semester with Richard Tarnas. For those unfamiliar with the general approach, this essay by Tarnas may be of service. Also see this introduction to planetary archetypes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Archetypal Analysis 

Tonight I walked under the stars through the snow & stopped & looked at my far sparklers & heard the voice of the wind so slight & pure & deep as if it were the sound of the stars themselves revolving.

Wide World (Emerson’s personal journal), February 17, 1838

  “The truest state of mind, rested in, becomes false,” writes Emerson.

Thought is the manna which cannot be stored. It will be sour if kept, & tomorrow must be gathered anew. Perpetually must we East ourselves.[1]

Emerson was born the afternoon of May 25th, 1803, with a Uranus-Jupiter-Saturn conjunction (by midpoint) rising in the Eastern sky. His Sun is trined by Uranus and Jupiter, and squared by Pluto, with Pluto opposite his Saturn. Emerson took on earthly form destined to breathe new life into the religious traditions of Western civilization at a time when they had grown increasingly prosaic and spiritually stultifying. A Mars-Moon conjunction gave him the strength of soul required to champion individual freedom (Jupiter-Uranus trine Sun) over and against socially imposed dogmas. As one biographer put it,

Stronger than his sense of duty and the long tradition of the Emersons in the Church was his personal rebellion from the dying rituals of Christian worship.[2]

His life’s mission, often expressed in the most sublime turns of phrase, was to free the human soul from the strictures of mass society and from the Church by awakening each individual to the creative power and immortality of their soul.

In the short essay to follow, I’d like to focus an archetypal lens upon the dynamics at play in a few particular events, especially Emerson’s lecture on “The American Scholar” (August 31st, 1837) and his address to the graduating class at Cambridge Divinity School (July 15th, 1838). Before interpreting the transits on these especially significant days, I will first briefly unpack the major planetary aspects in Emerson’s natal chart.

A journal entry from Dec. 21, 1823 clearly reveals how the above-mentioned aspects, especially Saturn opposite Pluto, Sun trine Uranus-Jupiter, and Mars conjunct Moon, are personified in the then twenty-year-old Emerson[3]:

Who is he that shall control me? Why may not I act & speak & write & think with entire freedom? …Is Society my anointed King? Or is there any mightier community or any man or more than man, whose slave I am? I am solitary in the vast society of beings; I consort with no species; I indulge no sympathies. I see the world, human, brute & inanimate nature; I am in the midst of them, but not of them; I hear the song of the storm— the Winds & warring Elements sweep by me— but they mix not with my being. I see cities & nations & witness passions— the roar of their laughter— but I partake it not;— the yell of their grief— it touches no chord in me; their fellowships & fashions, lusts & virtues, the words & deeds they call glory & shame— I disclaim them all. I say to the Universe, Mighty one! thou art not my mother; Return to chaos, if thou wilt, I shall still exist. I live. If I owe my being, it is to a destiny greater than thine. Star by Star, world by world, system by system shall be crushed— but I shall live.

Jupiter may have functioned on this night to inflate Emerson, or perhaps it was on this evening that his daemon took a great leap toward the heights of the over-soul. The relationships between his Sun, Saturn, Pluto, and Uranus produces an archetypal complex that refracts to influence Emerson in a whole spectrum of ways. His lectures and essays always champion the deeper, universal will or vitality at the base of all reality (i.e., Pluto): “The individual is always dying. The Universal is life.”[4] Pluto opposite Saturn is reflected in Emerson’s distaste for “the masses,” and his Uranus trine Sun is reflected in his elevation of the distinctly individual:

Masses! the calamity is the masses… I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.[5]

His desire to divide and separate from the masses may, in moments of emotional exaggeration, even devolve into alienation:

An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with.[6]

A Mars-Moon conjunction in Leo sheds archetypal light upon the polar nature of his character: a quiet, solitary, receptive soul though he may have been, Emerson was also a powerful preacher, the emotionally penetrating force of his pronouncements befitting of a prophet. A true soul-warrior, Emerson’s confidence never waned:

The soul always believes in itself…it knows that the total world is my inheritance, & the life of all beings I am to take up into mine.[7]

This conjunction is sextiled by Uranus, which, also trining his Sun, liberates Emerson, spirit and soul, from

…every form of life & doctrine that ever existed…[so that he could] give [himself] alone, original, pure to the Lonely, Original, & Pure.[8]

Emerson’s Mars-Moon conjunction may be his most crucial aspect, since it gives him the strength of soul to respond to the impact of Saturn and Pluto on his Sun (Saturn being pulled in by its midpoint with Jupiter and Uranus). Death was not at all foreign to Emerson, who lost his father at 8 years old, and lived through the death of two brothers, his wife, and his son later in life. Sometimes, the sheer force of his soul was not enough to overcome the darker, destructive influences of Saturn and Pluto:

My external condition may to many seem comfortable, to some enviable but I think that few men ever suffered (in degree not in amount) more genuine misery than I have suffered.[9]

Saturn also seems to have generated self-doubt, something Emerson battled his entire life:

The main difficulty of life is to strike the balance betwixt contending claims. I am embarrassed by doubts in all my purposes, & in all my opinions… For me I fear I lose days in determining how hours should be spent.[10]

As he aged, however, his soul became confident enough to integrate the difficult lessons of Saturn and Pluto:

The love that is in me, the justice, the truth can never die & that is all of me that will not die. All the rest of me is so much death— my ignorance, my vice, my corporeal pleasure. But I am nothing else than a capacity for justice, truth, love, freedom, power. I can inhale, imbibe them forevermore. They shall be so much to me that I am nothing, they all. Then shall God be all in all. Herein is my Immortality.[11]

In late 1832, two years after the death of his wife Ellen and during the height of his Saturn return, Emerson decided to resign his ministry at the Second Church of Boston. He wrote in his journal around this time:

I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship the dead forms of our forefathers.

Upon leaving his post with the Church, Emerson sailed to Europe, where he visitedItaly,France, andEngland. While in theEngland, he met Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle, maintaining a correspondence with the latter for the rest of his life. Upon returning from Europe in 1833, Emerson began to lecture on natural history inBoston. Over the course of the next few years, he lectured widely on topics ranging from English literature to the philosophy of history.

On September 9th, 1836, Emerson published his first book entitled Nature. The stars were truly aligned on this day: Mercury was conjunct his natal Uranus and trined by a Jupiter-Venus conjunction transiting his natal Mars-Moon conjunction, the Sun was conjunct his Saturn, and Neptune trined his natal Sun. The expansiveness and beauty of the poetic vision (Jupiter-Venus) expressed in this text is checked only by the clarity of its ideas (Mercury) and discipline of its moral insight (Saturn). Emerson was careful to balance the spiritual heights of idealism (Neptune) with the practical realities of earthly life (Saturn):

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.[12]

As Geldard described Emerson’s first publication, it was “a self-reflective dialogue between the transcendent seer and the pragmatic Yankee.”[13]

On August 31st, 1837, Emerson delivered perhaps his 2nd best-known lecture before the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge entitled “The American Scholar.” His goal was to further many of the same themes discussed in Nature, and according to Geldard, the event marked the auspicious beginning of Emerson’s life as a public figure.[14] Oliver Wendell Holmes, present at the lecture that day, remarked that it wasAmerica’s “intellectual declaration of independence,” which is born out by the Sun-Uranus opposition in the sky at the time of the speech. Emerson spoke of several influences on the scholar’s mind, the first of which being nature:

  …nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part…Its laws are the laws of his own mind…And, in fine, the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘study nature,’ become at last one maxim.[15]

The Sun-Uranus opposition (with both the Moon and Jupiter within orb of the Sun) is almost exactly aligned with Emerson’s natal Saturn-Pluto opposition, highlighting the archetypes at play in the above excerpt. The soul (Moon) is in generative tension with nature (Pluto), though the laws (Saturn) of each form a higher unity (Jupiter) as our true self (Sun).

Emerson goes on to mention the need for scholars to have confidence and self-trust, which is archetypally related to the near conjunction of the Sun with Jupiter and the Moon, also representing an expanded sense of self and a transparency to the unconscious psyche. The call to self-trust and independent scholarship is Emerson’s attempt to counter the mass-mindedness and herd mentality that he felt had overtaken American society; Uranus transiting his Pluto brought to greater awareness his need to liberate the masses from their disjointed existence:

The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.[16]

Neptune was opposite Emerson’s Moon, which may help account for his repeated insistence throughout the lecture on the ultimate unity of each human soul with the World Soul:

It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men.[17]

He continues,

A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.[18]

In 1838, Emerson was invited to give an address to the graduating class atCambridgeDivinitySchool. Up to this point, Emerson had not publically attacked theUnitarianChurch, but his private journals were full of criticism:

They [Unitarians] think that God causes a miracle to make men…They do not & will not perceive that it is to distrust the deity of truth—its invincible beauty—to do God a high dishonor—so to depict him.[19]

On July 15th, 1838, with the Sun and Mercury conjunct in his midheaven, trining his Neptune, Emerson gave the address that perhaps defined the rest of his life as a spiritual figure. Although it took 12 years to sell the first five hundred copies of Emerson’s first book, Nature, the first three hundred copies of this address sold out immediately.[20]

In his address, Emerson sought to redirect attention away from the personality of Jesus, whom the Church had elevated to superhuman status, and instead direct it to the infinite spirit hiding within everyone. With Neptune opposite his natal Mars-Moon conjunction, Emerson went to war against the stodgy clergy ofBostonon behalf of the spiritual power of the soul:

Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. The injury to faith throttles the preacher; and the goodliest of institutions becomes an uncertain and inarticulate voice.[21]

A Jupiter-Uranus opposition is lined up with his natal Saturn-Pluto opposition, with the Moon trining Jupiter and Saturn, freeing Emerson to destroy the customs of his time and place in order to replace them with the higher laws of the soul:

I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shinning laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.[22]

Transiting Saturn was conjunct his natalNeptune, trining Uranus, and opposite the Moon, allowing him to see through illusions and fully incarnate the spiritual reality that he felt Jesus truly came to teach:

To aim to convert a man by miracles, is a profanation of the soul. A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made, by the reception of beautiful sentiments…they have not yet drunk so deeply of his sense, as to see that only by coming again to themselves, or to God in themselves, can they grow forevermore.[23]

Mars and Venus were conjunct his Mercury (which squares his Jupiter), giving a beautifully elevated, but sharp tone to his words. In the coming weeks and months, with the authority of the Church challenged, the clergy began to attack Emerson’s character. This seems not to have fazed him, as he did not respond to them formally and continued to rise in popularity as his lecture circuit picked up steam.

  On April 19th, 1882, Emerson went for a walk in the rain and caught pneumonia. On April 27th, with Neptune and Saturn conjunct in the sky opposite his natalNeptune, Emerson left his body.


(1) Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. Volume 15 of Library ofAmerica. The American studies collection. 1983.

(2) Geldard, Richard G. God in Concord. Larson Publications, NY. 1999.

(3) Tarnas, Rick. Cosmos and Psyche. Viking Adult; First Edition. 2006.

(4) Emerson’s complete works @ Univ.of Michigan. Accessed 12/5/11. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

(5) All journal entries from The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Volume 1.HarvardUniversity Press. 1960

[1] Journal, May 13th, 1835

[2] God in Concord, p. 68

[3] An interested reader might also want to look at the transits on this night, with Jupiter in a grand cross with Mars, Pluto, and a Mercury-Neptune-Uranus conjunction, with the latter squaring Emerson’s Uranus-Jupiter-Saturn mindpoint.

[4] God in Concord, p. 88

[5] The Conduct of Life, VIII

[6] Experience, from Essays and Lectures, p. 473

[7] God in Concord, p. 115

[8] ibid.

[9] Journal, March 16, 1826

[10] Journal, Jan. 16, 1828

[11] Journal, October 24th, 1836

[12] Nature, from Essays and Lectures, p. 47

[13] God in Concord, p. 90

[14] ibid., p. 108

[15] Essays and Lectures, p. 56

[16] ibid., p. 54

[17] ibid., p. 67

[18] ibid., p. 71

[19] April 23rd, 1838

[20] God in Concord, p. 17

[21] Essays and Lectures, p. 83.

[22] ibid., p. 92

[23] ibid., p. 82

3 Comments Add yours

  1. J. Cullen says:

    Who wrote this article and when? … I have reason to believe I am Emerson’s new incarnation! I know, it sounds crazy. I believe that your knowledge and analysis of astrology, particularly his, can shed some light and truth on this. I have believed all of my life the things that I am discovering he stood for – I even look like him! And I am living my life out in New England as we speak …

    I was born at 10:42pm on March 5, 1986 … Just south of Boston, MA. I have been spending this last year trying to let people know that they are souls, not just their physical bodies, and that a classic case of “misidentification” is plaguing humanity right now as they drive themselves to “master and conquer nature, thus rising above it or defeating it” rather than understanding their communion with it. This in effect is leading to the pollution of the planet, which is being resisted thankfully by the “green” movement. More immediately, it is making individuals feel miserable in what is instead a beautiful and lively world!

    I appreciate your attention.

    1. Looking at your chart, I’m not surprised by your spiritual convictions, though I cannot speak for the possibility of a specific reincarnation. That you would be inclined to speak out about the radical and paradigm-shattering nature of the over-soul is reflected by a tight Uranus, Moon, Mercurcy conjunction on the cusp of Aries and Pisces. I am not a professional astrologer, though I did write this article last December.

  2. Trevor says:

    Hey. This article is really cool, something that I’ve never seen the likes of before. I first heard of Emerson from Elliot Hulse, and I am interested in what he has to teach. Most of what I know from him is Elliot Hulse.
    I’m also interested in astrology. Have been for awhile, and am currently learning the basics.
    I am fascinated by your astrological skills.. and I’m in need of guidance.. I’m hoping you could take a look at my chart and tell me anything about it that sticks out to you right away, anything you can tell me would be absolutely appreciated.
    March 23, 1992 born in Kamloops, BC, Canada.
    Thanks… -Trevor

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