Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” takes a fresh approach to Christianity, arguing convincingly that historical Christianity is dying and that we each have divinity within us that we must embrace in order to live as best as we can. Emerson slowly builds his argument from a simple appreciation of life and nature to a call for virtuous living, making his argument very convincing, since he begins at a very basic level and talks his audience with him into a higher level of thought by the end of his speech. His argument is passionate, emotional and persuasive, but he is careful not to go so far as to forcefully impose his views on his audience. Emerson uses personal, emotional language to convey his point, and makes sure to emphasize certain points through his syntax. Like with his essay, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson especially stresses the idea of relying on one’s own thoughts and intuitions, or, as he puts it, one’s soul.
Emerson immediately gets personal with his audience by expressing his admiration for the world in which we live, setting up a way for them to view him on their own level and identify with him, so that they are less likely to scrutinize his argument. After he has captured their attention, Emerson uses nature as a pathway into what he calls the sentiment of virtue and from there begins to argue his opinion about how historical Christianity is dying. After building and supporting a strong position and convincing his audience of the validity of his view, Emerson offers suggestions on how we can respond to this breakdown of Christianity. Right away, Emerson’s words are pleasant and easy to agree with; “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life…One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it give to every faculty of man!” This kind of approach makes an audience more likely to accept the rest of what he is about to say. Emerson warms up his audience by praising nature, aware that gratitude is something no one can disagree with. Then he begins to ask his questions and deliver the real message of his speech, sure that he has the attention and acceptance of his audience. This style is brilliant in that it prepares the audience by catching and keeping their attention so that Emerson is able to completely get his point across. From the beginning, he draws in his audience and then brings them with him through the whole discourse, ensuring that by the end, they have at least begun to think intelligently about what he has just presented.
“Divinity School Address” is a clear look into Emerson’s personal thoughts, and because of the way he conveys the passion of these thoughts, the speech is moving to its audience, making it undoubtedly persuasive. Emerson truly believes that there is divinity inside everyone which we are neglecting. Through his speech, he not only offers his audience the opportunity to see what he is feeling, but invites them to feel along with him, to make faith personal again. “My friends, in these two errors, I think, I find the cases of a decaying church and a wasting unbelief. And what greater calamity can fall upon a nation than the loss of worship?” Emerson is restating that he feels the church is dying and faith is waning, and then draws his audience into sharing in this sentiment with a rhetorical question. He forces his audience to take his own arguments and emotions and analyze them so that they are left with their own interpretation and feelings on the subject. It is hard not to agree with what Emerson is arguing, at least with the point that faith is dwindling and we need to look inward to strengthen it. Religion is always a personal subject, but the way that Emerson approaches it in this speech makes it even more personal because he concentrates on arguing that not only is faith within us, but we are its creators, that we actually have the power of the universal within us. On the surface, this may seem like blasphemy, but the points he makes to prove this are hard to deny, especially when he talks about Jesus.
“Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World.”
It cannot be denied that Jesus was, indeed, what Emerson says he was, that he did do what Emerson claims, “estimated the greatness of man” and “saw that God incarnates himself in man.” The passion of Emerson’s argument shows how truly he believes it and adds to the persuasiveness. It is difficult to say that Emerson is wrong in his argument, or that there isn’t a part of every one of us that agrees with what he has to say.
The command Emerson has over his language works perfectly in keeping his audience attentive to his argument. He clearly articulates his points, and often times will stretch out a sentence to fit the whole idea in, but he makes sure to restate that same idea again in a different way, often times as a series of shorter sentences that make a firm impact on the audience. A good example of this technique is when Emerson is speaking of every person as a preacher;
“It is very certain that it is the effect of conversation with the beauty of the soul, to beget a desire and need to impart to others the same knowledge and love. If utterance is denied, the thought lies like a burden on the man. Always the seer is a sayer. Somehow his dream is told; somehow he publishes it with solemn joy: sometimes with pencil on canvas, sometimes with chisel on stone…but clearest and most permanent, in words.”
Here, he is trying to make the point that every person has ideas inside his or her own being that are constantly trying to come out and be spread to others; that preaching one’s own doctrines can happen in a variety of different ways. The first sentence he uses to say this is wordy and a little confusing, but once Emerson follows this sentence with simple sentences like “Always the seer is a sayer,” and “Somehow his dream is told; somehow he publishes it with solemn joy,” the entire idea is understood. Emerson wants his ideas to be completely understood by his audience so that they have a sturdier foundation on which to build their own thoughts about the same argument. His points are hard to forget because of the short, meaningful statements he uses to summarize and drive home his overall idea, making it impossible to misunderstand him. This kind of command that Emerson has over his speech is an amazing and highly effective tactic for arguing something as difficult as faith and works well for him in this case.
Emerson stresses the idea of listening to oneself in a very similar way to how he suggests people should live in his essay, “Self-Reliance.” In that essay, he is essentially interested in convincing people not to conform to the opinions and expectations of society, but to follow his or her own intuitions and remain unaffected by any ideas other than their own. At one point in “Self-Reliance,” Emerson says, “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents,” which clearly reflects his sentiments in the “Divinity School Address.” Both essays stress the importance of recognizing our “souls,” mainly through realizing our individual potential and passions. Toward the end of “Divinity School Address,” Emerson makes a statement that could easily be put into “Self-Reliance;”
“Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil…Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man’s.”
“Self-Reliance” and “Divinity School Address” complement each other well. This passage demonstrates perfectly the overlapping messages from both essays. The similarities help emphasize the passion Emerson feels for his argument in “Divinity School Address,” that we all need to turn inward and recognize the power we have inside of us and turn that into virtue and faith so that we can live according to the universal divinity that we are all part of.
 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Selected Essays. “An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge.” pg. 107
 Ibid. pg. 122
 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Selected Essays. “An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge.” pg. 113
 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Selected Essays. “An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge.” pg. 110
 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Selected Essays. “Self-Reliance” pg. 176
 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Selected Essays. “An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge.” pg. 123