in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: June 26, 2023

Podcast #904: How Emerson Can Help You Become a Stoic Nonconformist

When we think about Stoic philosophers, we typically think about the thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome, like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. But my guest, Mark Matousek, says there was an incredibly insightful Stoic philosopher who lived on the American continent in more modern times: Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Matousek is the author of Lessons from an American Stoic: How Emerson Can Change Your Life, and today on the show, he shares how Stoicism and Transcendentalism overlap and how you can use Emerson’s Stoic philosophy to become a nonconformist. We discuss the lessons you can learn from Emerson on developing self-reliance, embracing the strengths of your weaknesses, trusting your own genius instead of imitating others, gaining confidence from nature, compensating for the difficulties of relationships through the joy of deeper connections, living with greater courage, and more.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When we think about stoic philosophers, we typically think about the thinkers of Ancient Greece and Rome, like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. But my guest, Mark Matousek says, there was an incredibly insightful stoic philosopher who lived on the American continent in more modern times. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Matousek is the author of Lessons From an American Stoic: How Emerson Can Change Your Life. Today in the show, he shares how stoicism and transcendentalism overlap and how you can use Emerson’s stoic philosophy to become a nonconformist. We discuss the lessons you can learn from Emerson on developing self-reliance, embracing the strengths of your weaknesses, trusting your own genius instead of imitating others, gaining confidence from nature, compensating for the difficulties of relationships through the joy of deeper connections, living with greater courage, and more. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

All right, Mark Matousek, welcome to the show.

Mark Matousek: Thanks a lot. It’s great to be here.

Brett McKay: So you got a new book out called Lessons from an American Stoic: How Emerson Can Change Your Life, and this is about the great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I’m curious, how did you discover Ralph Waldo Emerson, and how did he change your life?

Mark Matousek: I was in the first year of graduate school and I was having a very bad time in my life, I couldn’t find my direction, I felt lost in academia, I was fairly depressed and anxious a lot of the time, and I happened to fall into a job as a research assistant for a professor who was writing a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson. And I barely knew his work, just from high school, I had read a couple of essays, but it didn’t really mean anything to me. And you know how when the student is ready, the teacher shows up, and when I started to read his work, something resonated in me that I hadn’t encountered before. He was the first transcendental writer I had ever come across. He had a vision of human potential that was much bigger than anything I had ever encountered before.

And it cut through my depression in a way that nothing else really had. The beauty of the writing, the expansiveness of his vision, and the sense of self-reliance, which is something that I had never understood deeply before coming across Emerson, really shifted how I looked at myself and the world. I stopped blaming other people for my problems. I started looking inside myself for answers. I realized that even though I was… I considered myself an agnostic, an atheist, that I really did have a deep sense of spirituality in me. It wasn’t an organized religious kind of spirituality, but there was definitely a sense of something bigger than myself and being connected to something larger that I had been longing for my whole life and didn’t even realize it.

Brett McKay: So, the book is called Lessons From an American Stoic. I’ve never thought of Emerson as a stoic before. You said in the book that he was called America’s Original Stoic. Why is that?

Mark Matousek: People don’t realize what a stoic Emerson was. So much of transcendental philosophy overlaps with stoicism. They both share this idea that we all create our own reality, and that how we see is how we live. They all talked about, Emerson, as well as the ancient stoics, talked about the fact that nothing can really harm you except with your own permission. That how we interpret our lives has everything to do with our experience. They both talked about obstacles being opportunities, virtue as a path of happiness. The stoics as well as Emerson shared this belief that character is destiny, that how you think, what you believe, is who you become, and that’s what unfolds as your destiny in life.

Brett McKay: Also, the stoics believed God is in everything, like the universe. He’s there all over the place. And like transcendentalism had a similar idea.

Mark Matousek: That’s exactly it, yeah. That the God in you connects to the God in all things. That non-dual metaphysical belief was very much present with the stoics and it was Emerson’s whole life. His entire life’s work was about helping people recognize that they have, that we all have, in ourselves, access to a bigger mind, what he called the Over-Soul or the Over-Mind. We all have access to that and the stoics believed that as well. And that when we tap into that deep wisdom in ourselves, we know much more than we’re aware of and we’re much more powerful than we give ourselves credit for.

Brett McKay: So Emerson is famous for his essay called Self-Reliance. It’s all about being an individual. I think everyone’s probably read that at some point, maybe in high school and college. What did Emerson mean exactly by self-reliance and what do you think people get wrong about his idea of self-reliance?

Mark Matousek: This is huge. This may be the biggest takeaway from my book, is that we have misunderstood what he meant by self-reliance. Self-reliance has so often been misinterpreted as isolationism, arrogance, egotism, but Emerson said that there is nothing so weak as an egotist, and that self-reliance is reliance on God. Now, whether we think of God as being God up in the sky of traditional religion, or just spirit, realizing that self-reliance is a reliance on the thing in us that’s bigger than our personality. And when you get that, it takes you out of the victim’s seat. So many of us live our lives putting our power outside of ourselves, like we’re victims of circumstance. And self-reliance is the antithesis of that. It says that we can take back our power by recognizing that we have a choice in how we respond to circumstances.

We have a choice in how we see ourselves and the world. And when you develop what psychologists call an internal locus of control instead of an external locus of control, it shifts the way you live. You start to look inside for guidance instead of always seeking authority outside yourself. And you also learn to know yourself and to think for yourself. Of course, the first premise of all philosophy is to know thyself, and that’s very much at the heart of self-reliance. Without self-knowledge, we can’t live empowered lives.

Brett McKay: So what you’ve done in your book, Lessons From An American Stoic, is, I think you did a great job, is you looked at all of Emerson’s work, his essays, his letters that he wrote to various friends, his journals, and extracted lessons on how we can become more self-reliant in an Emersonian sort of way, and you developed, created 12 lessons. I wanna talk about some of these lessons today and how we can become more self-reliant. And the first one you mentioned, character is destiny, or you called it character is everything. And in this section you talked about Emerson’s idea of compensation. How can Emerson’s idea of compensation help us discover our character?

Mark Matousek: Compensation basically says that for every sweet there is a sour, and that for every weakness there is a strength, in understanding that there’s a duality in human life, that we need to make space for, if we wanna be whole people. That means incorporating what we call the shadow into our self-awareness and into our self-acceptance. So compensation means accepting your own contradictions and understanding that, as he said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. That when we are constantly aspiring to be consistent, monolithic, that leads to conformity and it leads to a very unrealistic expectation of who we are. The fact is, we’re all mixed bags, and that’s what makes us unique. That’s what gives us our originality. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The problem is that we spend so much of our lives judging ourselves for the things that we can’t accept or that we wish were different and pushing them away. So what Emerson is all about embracing all of who we are, and then using that mixed bag, that motley crew of characters inside ourselves, using all of that to become as unique and particular and original as we can be in our lives. So it’s not about smoothing out the rough edges, and it’s not about hiding the things in us that we’re ashamed of. It’s about owning them and seeing how they can inform us. Because another thing he said and compensation is about, is understanding that our faults, our losses, our disappointments are also teachers.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that’s a really useful idea of understanding even personal weaknesses you might have, it might be the source of your strength. Someone who might think, well, I’m just not very extroverted, right? I can’t put myself out there and be sort of like the life of the party. Well, then you… Emerson would say, well, what sorts of good things come from that? What does it allow you? Maybe you’re a bit more introspective, maybe you are able to connect better on a more intimate level, one-on-one with people. So I like that idea. And you see him, in Emerson’s writing, like he struggled with that. He was always pointing out his flaws, and he’d often compare himself maybe to Thoreau, right? He said, “Well, Thoreau is out there, living the ideas of transcendentalism better than I am.” But I think one of, the strengths that Emerson had, Thoreau was out there looking at bullfrogs and building sheds, but Emerson was a great writer. He was a good public speaker. So even though he wasn’t really good at the hands-on, self-reliance of transcendentalism, it was a strength ’cause he was able to be a great speaker and spread these ideas of transcendentalism.

Mark Matousek: Yeah, that’s, no, that’s exactly right. And he was very hard on himself. He had been a really insecure little boy. Nobody was, expected very much of him. He had these very popular, good looking brothers who were outgoing, and he was this chubby, introverted little guy who nobody expected much of. So from the time he was a little boy, he had an inferiority complex and problems with self-esteem. And he struggled with that throughout his life. And it’s part of what made him such a great writer is that he was able to be so candid about himself and so human with himself. And, as you said, there were many things that he couldn’t do well, he couldn’t build a shed on his own land that he loaned to Thoreau to build the shed at Walden Pond. He couldn’t do that, and he did envy Thoreau for a lot of his hands-on abilities.

But Emerson was a far greater writer. He was a much deeper thinker and Thoreau took many of his ideas from Emerson. So this isn’t to take anything away from Thoreau. He was a unique and powerful soul. But Thoreau also had of course, his many, many flaws, not being able to connect with other people, not being willing to put his work into the world in a way that was satisfying to him. There were ways that Thoreau felt like a failure as well. And what Emerson is saying is that, trying to be someone else’s idea of what a powerful, strong, successful person looks like, is a disaster. He said that imitation is suicide and that you reach a certain point in your life that you realize that if you don’t start to follow your own, your own genius, that voice of guidance inside yourself, you’re never going to reach the destination that is meant for you.

Brett McKay: All right, so another lesson is, you are how you see, and this is all about perspective. How did Emerson expand his perspective on himself and in his life?

Mark Matousek: Through self-inquiry. That really was his primary means of self-discovery, and it’s also the path of self-reliance, is, understanding one’s self. One way that he did that was through journal writing. He turned inward, as did the ancient stoics, in his journal, and exploring his inner life, asking himself the kinds of deep questions that we don’t often ask in the everyday conversation. Who am I? What am I doing here? What do I mean? What is this life for? Those were the kinds of questions that he explored in his journal, and it gave him a deeper sense of who he was. And he came to see that, as he put it, people do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character. He came to see that the way he was seeing the world said more about him than it did the outside world. He said, what is life but the angle of vision? So it’s all about questioning our angle of vision, questioning our perspective, in an ongoing way, because of course what’s true for you today may not be true for you next week. And that’s why self-inquiry, particularly journal writing is a practice.

We’re always starting over and that’s why you can sit and ask the same questions week after week, month after month, and get different answers because we are constantly changing and our needs are changing, and who we are shifts. As Emerson said, “The same world is a hell and a heaven, depending on how we look at it.” And that goes back to that law of compensation, and understanding that everything has both sides to it, depending on the way you frame it, and what it means to you.

Brett McKay: Yeah. The journal writing, that was really important to Emerson. He called his journal, The Wide World. And then one of the first things he did when he met Thoreau, he said, “Are you keeping a journal?” And Thoreau at the time, wasn’t keeping a journal. And Emerson is like, “You should keep a journal.” And because Thoreau started keeping a journal, we have all this great writing, because of that. And that’s another common thing with Emerson and the stoics. A lot of people have probably read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Those are basically, those are journal entries. Those were for himself. They weren’t meant to be public writings, they were just him writing in a journal, telling him to get his act together. And so there’s another stoic connection right there.

Mark Matousek: Yeah, it’s absolutely true. We wouldn’t have the Meditations if Marcus Aurelius hadn’t kept a journal. We wouldn’t have Walden, if Thoreau hadn’t kept a journal when he was at Walden Ponds. A lot of the… What later became the book Walden, were journal entries. So this is really about understanding that we have this tool at our disposal, this tool of self-inquiry, and you don’t have to be a great writer to do that. It’s not about creating beautiful prose, it’s about having the willingness to ask deep questions and tell the truth. And that’s something of course we don’t often do. We think that we do, we go through our lives being mostly honest people, trying to do the right thing. But the fact is that we all dissemble and lie every day of our lives in subtle and not so subtle ways.

And what journal writing helps you to do is cut through that. Because of course you can’t lie to yourself in quite the same way as you do to other people. And that’s the beauty of self-inquiry, is that you challenge your own narratives. And because of course we are story making animals, that’s what we do. It’s how we survive in the world. We create interpretations of our experience, but the interpretation is not the truth. What happened is not your idea about what happened. So what journal writing helps you do is get between those two things and tweak them apart. So you see, “Ah, this is what happened. And that’s what I told myself about what happened.” And when you can dis-identify from the story, that’s when you begin to awaken to what is true and a different, a more authentic way of being in the world.

Brett McKay: So, another lesson is build your own world, and this is all about becoming a nonconformist. Transcendentalists were big on this idea of nonconformity. What did Emerson mean by nonconformity? ‘Cause that’s a word people throw around a lot. “Well, I’m a nonconformist,” but I think Emerson had a deeper meaning to that.

Mark Matousek: He did. And it goes to what we’ve been saying about trusting this voice inside us. We all have what he called Genius that comes from the… The Romans were the first to use the word Genius and what they mean by that is our muse or the tutelary deity that we come into life with, that is unique to us. And the only purpose of your Genius, it’s also called the Daimon by the Greeks, is to guide you toward your own fruition. And so the nonconformist is devoted to listening to the voice of their own genius and trusting their own intuition and their own inner guidance. Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that’s constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” That we have to swim against the tide because of course society doesn’t want a citizenry of nonconformists, society survives by people coloring inside the lines, doing what they’re told to do and being socialized.

And of course we need to be socialized, as social animals, we need to cooperate. That’s all true. But when it comes to making the deep decisions in our own lives, and the choices that matter to us, it’s a disaster to try to follow someone else’s Daimon, someone else’s muse. We end up living somebody else’s life. Emerson says that, “Society is not your friend.” And it’s really important to remember that. So, it doesn’t mean being antisocial necessarily, but it means understanding where your power lies. Your power lies in yourself. As Emerson said, “My authority comes from my nonconformity.” We don’t wanna be living according to other people’s standards of goodness and thereby becoming hypocritical, which is what happens a lot. Folks live outwardly one way, but inside there’s something else. He’s trying to unify the inside with the outside so that we are whole and it heals the division and the conflict that comes up when we are trying to impersonate other people.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Emerson called that double consciousness.

Mark Matousek: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Mark Matousek: Exactly.

Brett McKay: And in that chapter about nonconformity, you make the case that both Thoreau and Emerson were examples of nonconformity in their own way. Thoreau, he really embraced this idea of nonconformity in a way that even Emerson, and we were talking about this earlier, how Emerson kind of envied Thoreau. And there’s this great quote that Emerson said about Thoreau’s embrace of transcendentalism. He said, “Thoreau gives me, in flesh and blood, my own ethics. He is far more real, and daily practically obeying them, than I.” And then Emerson also said this of Thoreau, “He walked abreast with his days, and felt no shame in not studying a profession, for he does not postpone his life, but lives already.” But Emerson could be a nonconformist in his own way. When he was a minister, his thoughts on God started to change and then he gave this address to the Harvard Divinity School where he said some stuff that upset a lot of people. He said some things that people thought were heretical and so he was denounced. But even though he was denounced, he never replied to the criticism. He just let his word stand. And he wasn’t invited back to speak at Harvard again. I think it was for something like 30 years. So that took some chutzpah, too.

Mark Matousek: Oh, it absolutely did. No, he was not a coward. Thoreau was an extreme. Thoreau was somebody who truly lived outside the margins of what you would call normality in a way that Emerson did. And Emerson was a pretty solid bourgeois. He was married, he had children, he lived in the same house. Thoreau rejected many of the things we associate with civilization. But Emerson was a very brave man. He was a seventh-generation minister, he had this amazing job at 28 as the head of The Second Church in Boston, a very prestigious job. And he gave up the pulpit. He walked away from it. And that was a scandal that he did that. People called him a pagan and a pantheist, but he didn’t care. So it wasn’t that he backed away from other people’s judgment, it’s that he was a more self-conscious soul than Thoreau. He was more circumspect. So they had a different kind of courage. But that’s important too because one thing that Emerson says is never try to imitate another person’s courage. That we all have our own version of what brave looks like. So we need not try to imitate other people’s way of being in the world.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So another lesson, one of my favorites was without confidence, the universe is against me. What did Emerson mean by confidence?

Mark Matousek: Confidence comes from the root word, for with faith. And for him, confidence was having faith in that thing in us that knows, that genius, that voice of guidance, which is connected to the divine, however you think of the divine. So for him, confidence had to do with tapping into the thing in us that’s bigger than our personality. He talked about us having a giant within us, and that when we discover that giant, it frees us of so many of our fears. And also, when you have confidence, as I’m sure you’ve seen in your own life, when you… As he said, once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen. So confidence has charisma connected to it. Confidence has a kind of a magnetism, and it means being rooted in what is true for you, which is something that’s always changing. So that’s why consistency is an overrated virtue according to Emerson, because what you care about today isn’t what you’re gonna care about in a couple of weeks. And confidence comes from being true to your own changes in your own changeability and being connected to that internal locus of control that I was talking about earlier.

Instead of feeling like life is happening to us, it’s more like life is happening through us, and we are not the victims of circumstance. We can always shift our relationship to our circumstances and gauge our responses. And this, of course, is the heart of stoicism, is learning to gauge your responses to the outside world and to external conditions. And then you realize that external conditions aren’t running your life. Your mind is running your life. And how you respond to those conditions is what determines your well-being.

Brett McKay: And you also talk at the beginning of that chapter how Emerson’s idea of confidence was also tied up with this idea of enthusiasm, but it’s the Greek idea of enthusiasm. What is that idea?

Mark Matousek: Well, the Greek word root for enthusiasm means with God, it means filled with God. So once again, it’s connected to spirit, whatever a person calls spirit. Many people are allergic to the G word. They can’t stand religion. That’s fine. Enthusiasm is connected to passion and spirit, the thing that enlarges us, that takes us beyond what we’re capable of. Enthusiasm is a real joy in living and connecting to the power that’s bigger than we are. And that’s, of course, connected to nature. Nature is one of our primary means of tapping into that higher form of energy. And that’s what enthusiasm is, that’s what confidence is. And that’s why of course, he, like Thoreau, talks so much about learning from nature, spending time in nature, remembering that you are nature, seeing the lessons that nature can teach you. He talks about watching ants on the ground and learning from their industriousness, or learning tranquility from the clear blue sky, or learning durability and stamina from the way the water hits a rock and the rock can just bear the water hitting it over and over and over. We learn from nature. We learn these lessons about how to be a whole human being from connecting to the natural world.

And one of his sacrilegious ideas was saying that we are nature and that since nature is God on earth, the representation of the divine on earth, we also are divine. And that was blasphemy, for him to say that. But it’s really the root of Emerson’s wisdom is that as parts of nature, we share all the qualities of nature. And that includes the ability to free ourselves, and to adapt, and the resilience, and the ability to regenerate and recreate ourselves. All of these are visible in the natural world. And when you connect to that, it gives you enormous vitality and confidence and enthusiasm.

Brett McKay: Okay, so confidence was required to live a self-reliant life. And confidence required enthusiasm or vitality, and you have a whole chapter about vitality. It’s called A Stream of Power Runs Through You. And that whole idea of life is streaming. We’re part of nature. We can tap into that. But what’s interesting about Emerson’s life, he wrote these just really inspiring prose about vitality and confidence. One of my wife’s and I’s favorite quotes from Emerson is, “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.” It’s very bracing and very stirring. But if you look at his personal life, his private life, it seemed like this idea of confidence, enthusiasm, and vitality was something that he struggled with. What did that look like in his life?

Mark Matousek: Well, first of all, physical vitality was a struggle for him. He was never a strong man physically; he had tuberculosis from the time he was a young boy. He used to envy the vitality of the people around him, he had to measure out his energy very carefully to do the work that he wanted to do, and he was constantly lamenting his lack of animal power, he used to call it. His animal forces were weak, and yet he recognized that, that vitality is something that’s streaming through us. As he said, “Man is a conductor of a whole stream of electricity.” So we are electric beings. And this, of course, reminds you of Whitman and singing the Body Electric. That this was very much an idea in the air at that time. And vitality is that force that through the green fuse drives the flower, as Dylan Thomas put it. It’s something that we all have access to and we need to learn to husband it, and that’s something Emerson talks about a lot. That goes to nonconformity as well because we can’t fritter our energies away trying to imitate other people.

We need to be clear about how our own stream of electricity operates. And his was intermittent and it was not as strong as it might have been. So he had to be very careful about it, feeding himself well, physically, spiritually and intellectually in order to strengthen himself because it was something that was not… Didn’t come easily to him.

Brett McKay: I think that’s interesting about Emerson, how he lacked that physical vitality and as a consequence, he may have realized the importance, like you know how important something is when you lack it, right? And so he understood the importance…

Mark Matousek: Exactly, yeah.

Brett McKay: Of vitality. And I think also he… I think he was trying to perhaps transfer, kind of bring up this idea of not just physical vitality, but also spiritual vitality. If you can’t be vital in your physical life, you can live a strenuous vital life spiritually. And what’s interesting, Friedrich Nietzsche was an admirer of Emerson, and what’s interesting about Nietzsche’s work is, he’s known for the Übermensch and the Overman, and it’s all very bracing and vital sort of prose. But like Emerson, Nietzsche, he was frail, he was sick. He spent most of his life just traveling to different places, to different sanatoriums and hotels to recuperate from different illnesses. Nietzsche realized he lacked physical vitality, so he admired it, but I think he also was trying to come up with this idea of spiritual vitality as well.

Mark Matousek: Yeah, that’s true. Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century German mystic talks about Viriditas, that green force that flows through us and that animates the universe. It’s also the force of Eros. And that’s what we’re talking about. So there’s physical vitality. Do you have a strong body or a weak body and what’s your physiology? And then there’s this spiritual vitality that we all partake of. And regardless of the state of your body, that can be extremely strong, and it was in Emerson. His spiritual vitality never wavered, it was his physical vitality that he worried about, and that was such a struggle for him. But learning to nurture that Viriditas, that green force in us, that erotic force in us has a lot to do with how effectively we live and the joy we’re able to feel, and how much we’re able to connect with other people, how engaged we are. Without that, it’s very difficult to be in the world in a way that matters without having that spiritual vitality, which has to do with attention, it has to do with compassion and empathy, and it also has to do with interest.

The thing I love about Emerson is he was so interested in life and learning. And you see that with most people who have that kind of vitality we’re talking about, they may not be physically strong, but when they have that enthusiasm, that vitality that’s connected to spirit, it can go a long way to making up for whatever debility there is in the body.

Brett McKay: Yeah, we have… One of our mottos in our house, in our family, is don’t be a potato head. And basically it’s we don’t want… I don’t wanna be that way and we don’t want our kids to be sort of type of person you’re in a class and someone’s giving a lecture on some topic where you just disengage and you’re just kinda looking at the person slack-jawed and not really paying attention. I want them to be engaged with it. This is an opportunity to learn something. So yeah, I think… Take away that from Emerson, he wasn’t a spiritual potato head.

Mark Matousek: He was not a spiritual potato head, not at all. He was fascinated by life, he was fascinated by people and he was a keen observer of things. Outwardly, you had this well-brought-up Yankee Boston Brahmin, but inside he was a passionate man with dramatic emotions and big upheavals and big joys and big sorrows. And that aliveness comes through in his work and it comes through in his understanding of human nature.

Brett McKay: You have a lesson on relationships called Thorn In My Flesh. And Emerson, if you read his writings, he had a very… He had high ideals for relationships, but it seemed like he struggled with them for most of his life. What did Emerson struggle with when it came to relationships?

Mark Matousek: This really was his tragic flaw, if you look at it from the sort of old heroic Greek way. His tragic flaw was his inability to be intimate. He had tremendous difficulty connecting emotionally with other people, and he had a lot of grief over that. He said, “The love you withhold is the pain that you carry.” And he carried a lot of pain around his withholding of love, even from the people he cared about most. At one point in the journal, he says, even at home he looks at the people in his own house as across an abyss. So he was profoundly alienated in a part of himself and very withdrawn and shy. And so for him, relationships were an ongoing mystery and challenge. He had a very close relationship with Margaret Fuller, who was many people thought the most learned woman of her day. And it was a tortured, difficult relationship, and they pined for each other, and they had these intense, long, intellectual conversations. And he worshiped her, he idolized her in certain ways, but then he’d be in the same room with her and he’d feel himself being repulsed.

And part of it was that she had the hots for him, and she was constantly trying to seduce him and he was a married man. And he was not attracted to her. But part of it was this discomfort with emotion and connection. Something around that, that he could do it in his mind, and he could do it in the abstract, but when it came to actually expressing it to the individual, showing his own vulnerabilities, that was very, very hard for him. And he thanked Margaret afterward. He had to finally pull back from the friendship. Though he never stopped loving her, he had to pull back from the friendship. But he thanked her after that for starting to crack through his resistance. He said to her, “I’ll never go quite back to my old Arctic ways. So he knew how chilly he could be and he didn’t wanna be that way, but that was his, in certain ways, his temperament and his nature. And he was always trying to open up more and overcome that distance that he felt from other people.

Brett McKay: Well, him and Thoreau, they had a really close friendship, but it was often strained. What was that like?

Mark Matousek: That was a very strained relationship. Yeah. He loved Henry and Henry loved him, and there was a lot of tension between them because they were very critical of one another for all the reasons that we’ve been talking about. There are ways that Emerson didn’t think that Thoreau was living up to his potential, and there are ways that Thoreau thought that Emerson was a prig, and couldn’t loosen up and needed to break free of his bourgeois lifestyle. They judged each other. They had a very contentious relationship. But Emerson was, at the end of the day, Thoreau’s real mentor. He was seven years older than Thoreau. They weren’t quite contemporaries, so they admired each other tremendously. And then they would get into the kind of emotional confusion and haggling that a lot of close friends do. Everyone is imperfect. And the closer you get to them, the bigger their imperfections become, the more obvious they become. And he was very aware of the ways that Henry was unkind and the ways that he refused to join in. Henry would never join in with other people, even when it would have benefited him and them.

So Henry could be a bit withholding in a way that Emerson wasn’t. Emerson was generous spiritually. He couldn’t always be generous emotionally, but he was generous spiritually. Henry was not. And he was cantankerous and very, very judgmental. And he had a way of kind of finding the fault and the flaw in everything that annoyed Emerson. Emerson was somebody who tried to look for the good and the true and the beautiful. Henry was somebody who looked for the faulty, the hypocritical, and the problematic. So they were very different temperamentally that way and it became an issue very often in their friendship, which was kind of off and on. They were always in each other’s lives, but they were not always as close as they might have been.

Brett McKay: So what lessons do you think we can take from Emerson on developing good relationships?

Mark Matousek: The one that speaks to me most is the importance of intellectual connection. And that doesn’t mean that all relationships have to be intellectual, but for him, for example, having deep conversation in a relationship was the highest ideal. It was his drug of choice, you could say. He loved conversation, he wanted to know what people he cared about thought, what they struggled with, what their ideals were, the places that scared them. He wanted to know people in a very deep way, and that didn’t always mean that he could be as emotionally demonstrative as he wanted to be, but he really wanted to know, he cared about the inner life of the other person. And that’s something that we, in our relationships, don’t always focus as much on as we might. In friendships we tend to, because friends are connected, because they tend to be connected, because they share mutual interests. But for example, in intimate relationships with a lover or a spouse, to remember to care about the other person’s inner life. Who are you today? What do you believe in? What really means something to you?

He was always encouraging us to engage on that level. And that’s really useful to remember, particularly these days in the age of ADD, when we don’t often give the people in our lives the attention that they deserve or that relationships require to deepen. Something Emerson always talked about is that relationships take time to deepen and to form, and that we’re always looking for instant gratification. And he really cared about the deeper values of relationship that’s based on knowing the other person, knowing them the way we know as seekers. We understand what really makes the other person tick.

Brett McKay: So another lesson is Death of Fear. It’s all about courage. And in this chapter, you recount a moment in Emerson’s life that would change him profoundly. His first wife, Ellen, died and then it put Emerson in this deep, deep depression that lasted over a year. But then he did something to get him out of that funk. What did Emerson do to get out of his depression?

Mark Matousek: This was shocking. He couldn’t pull out of it. He was having suicidal thoughts and nobody could help him. And one day he realized that he had to shake himself out of this state that he was in, this frozen state. And so he went to the… Without telling anyone, he went to the cemetery where Ellen was entombed and he opened her coffin to look at her face. He realized that he needed to face his greatest fear, which was seeing her dead body and really getting that she was gone. She had been the love of his life. She died when she was 19, after they were married only a year and a half. He nursed her through tuberculosis. It was a horrible thing, and he needed to face the horror. And when he did that, it shook him up. He changed profoundly. He didn’t tell anyone about this and there’s a very short mention of it in his journal. But after that, he quit the ministry, he went to Europe, he met some of his great literary heroes, and he started to publish, and his life shifted profoundly.

And as Robert Richardson, his biographer said, “After that fall into depression, he would never again forget the un-regarded epiphanies of every blessed day. He realized that life had even deeper value than he had realized before this grief drowned him in it.” And so it shook him up. It shook him back to life and it was the best thing he could have done for himself.

Brett McKay: So what can we learn from that experience on facing our fears to become more courageous?

Mark Matousek: Moving toward our fears head-on and not avoiding them as much as possible. What we do and why fear gets bigger is that we resist it and we try to avoid it. And the more we do that, the bigger it gets, the more powerful the fears become. So as Emerson said, “Knowledge is the antidote to fear.” So the more we know about our fears, the less control they have over us. So for him, for example, he needed to know what Ellen’s body looked like then. What was this thing that he was grieving? And when he did that, it kind of cut his fear off at the knees. And that’s something that we can all do, is instead of when a fear comes up, instead of running away from it, we can look at it directly and say, what are you? When you do that, the fear diminishes immediately. The spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, used to say that fears are like, instead of running away from our fears and turning them into these gigantic monsters, we can just see that they’re little schmooze and we can invite them in for tea. So instead of giving them all this power, we can say, “Oh, you’re not all that. Come here, come in, sit down, let’s have some tea.” And so we defang our fears that way. That’s how we reduce our fears.

So it’s important to face our fears. And it’s important to understand that they don’t have to define us. Emerson was very big on the idea that what happens to us is the external life. And so grief, for example, he had a lot of grief in his life, but he realized that grief belongs to the external life. So things happen to us and they pass. And whatever is impermanent doesn’t have the lasting ability to disempower us or to take away our joy for living. So understanding that fear is out there and it doesn’t have to run us was a huge insight for him personally and in his teaching.

Brett McKay: And he got that from an aunt, Aunt Mary. She was this really staunch Protestant. And she would always tell her nephew to always, always, always, always, always, do what you are afraid to do all the time. And I guess Emerson embraced that.

Mark Matousek: Yes, and Mary Moody Emerson was a piece of work. She was a strict Calvinist. She was a religious fanatic by any estimation. She used to travel in a burial shroud so in case she died, she could go right to her maker, she slept in a bed that was shaped like a coffin. She was a real eccentric. But one of her strengths was her fearlessness and her ability to really push her nephews to confront the things that scared them the most. And she was his biggest influence when he was growing up. She lived with the family and she was his great spiritual tutor as well as his tutor in life in many ways. And she lived fearlessly. She also was a woman in that age who lived in many ways like a man and couldn’t care less about the conventions of the time and what a woman was supposed to do or not allowed to do. So she was a role model for him around originality and fearlessness. And here again, Emerson said, “To be really strong, we must adhere to our own means and not attempt to adopt another’s courage.”

So while he could admire his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, he was not his aunt. He needed to find his own courage and find his own path to self-empowerment. And this was an ongoing process. He sometimes fell short and he would recriminate himself for his perceived failures. And then he would try harder next time. So he was a work in progress like all of us.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I love that idea of there’s different types of courage based on your character. And he said this, it’s a great quote. “There is a courage of manners in private assemblies and another in public assemblies. A courage which enables one man to speak masterly to a hostile company whilst another man who can easily face a cannon’s mouth, dares not open his own.” And he said those are all different types of courage you can have. You got to find what your courage is good at and lean into that. Well, Mark, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Mark Matousek: Thanks. It’s wonderful to talk to you. Well, people can go to my website, which is and check out my work there. I also have a global online community for self-inquiry, which is called The Seekers Forum, so people can go to and learn more about what we do there.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Mark Matousek, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Mark Matousek: My pleasure. Thanks so much.

Brett McKay: My guest is Mark Matousek. He’s the author of the book, Lessons From An American Stoic. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about Mark’s work at his website, Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. The Art of Manliness podcast hosts guests from a wide range of fields, so you can learn more about a wide range of topics. In the same week, we might discuss the rise and fall of the golden age of action heroes and the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. If you enjoy the ever fresh variety of the AOM Podcast, consider taking a minute to leave the show a review. I greatly appreciate all the generous folks who do so. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.

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