Divinity School Address

Emerson delivered his speech before the Senior Class of divinity students, their professors, and local ministers in Divinity Hall at Harvard Divinity College, Cambridge, on Sunday Evening, July 15, 1838.

Summary of The Divinity School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“The Divinity School Address” is an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered as a lecture to the divinity school of Harvard College in 1838. In the essay, Emerson critiques traditional forms of Christianity and religious institutions and calls for a new kind of spirituality based on individual experience and personal insight.

He argues that organized religion and its institutions have become stale and irrelevant and that people should seek a deeper understanding of the divine through intuition and experience. He believes that each person has access to the divine within themselves and that this inner spiritual connection is more important than any external religious authority.

Throughout the essay, Emerson emphasizes the importance of individuality, self-reliance, and self-discovery in the spiritual realm and calls for a return to a more authentic and personal form of spirituality. By doing so, he challenges the dominant religious and intellectual norms of his time and lays the foundation for a new kind of spiritual and philosophical thought in America.

Knight Of Faith – Kierkegaard

“For Nietzsche, it was the Ubermensch who existed in what I would categorize as the “aesthetic sphere” (to borrow from Kierkegaard). The Ubermensch didn’t adhere to any self-denying tenants such as Christian morality and in looking away from life (such as spending your life trying to get to heaven instead of actually living) itself. The Ubermensch existed in the immediate and denied the concepts of morality pushed by western society (the ethical sphere) and was unconcerened with the concepts of “good and evil” (they prevented us from excerting our will).

For Kierkegaard, the ideal was the Knight of Faith. I don’t know much about the Kinght of Faith, but Kierkegaard referred to Abraham (of the Judeo-Christian religion) as the ultimate example of this in his book “Fear and Trembling”. For Kierkegaard, Abraham had made the leap of faith by rejecting the rational and reasonable constructs that humanity operated on and by following the arbitrary word of God. By placing his faith in God and sacrificing his only son on the altar without questioning God, he had exemplified the leap of faith by not operating under ration or common sense, rather, by faith alone. Kierkegaard thought that this was the best life and the greatest virtue a person could have. To accept the absurd and to live for God (who does not exist in the realm of ration but in the realm above human ration and reason, in the realm of the absurd; which to me, means God transcends human understanding not that God is absurd, but by our standards, God would seem absurd).

These two examples of the ideal exemplars of human virtue and value seem to be at odds, but in a way, perhaps they aren’t so different and can come together, in that they both reject the norms and standards of traditional western thought (at least since the time of Socrates) in favor of following their own standard. However, it seems the Knight of Faith is too occupied with the realm of the absurd which would fall outside of the immediate realm where the Ubermensch occupied. I don’t think Nietzsche would trust the Knight of Faith and would view it as an ultimately self(as it exists in the present)-denying concept.”


Existentialism (/ˌɛɡzɪˈstɛnʃəlɪzəm/[1] or /ˌɛksəˈstɛntʃəˌlɪzəm/[2]) is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the problem of human existence and centers on the experience of thinking, feeling, and acting. In the view of the existentialist, the individual’s starting point has been called “the existential angst,” a sense of dread, disorientation, confusion, or anxiety in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Existentialist thinkers frequently explore issues related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

Existentialism is associated with several 19th and 20th-century European philosophers who shared an emphasis on the human subject, despite profound doctrinal differences. Many existentialists regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience. A primary virtue in existentialist thought is authenticity. Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or “authentically

Existence precedes essence

Sartre argued that a central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that individuals shape themselves by existing and cannot be perceived through preconceived and a-priori categories, an “essence”. The actual life of the individuals is what constitutes what could be called their “true essence” instead of an arbitrarily attributed essence others use to define them. Human beings, through their own consciousness, create their own values and determine a meaning to their life. This view is in contradiction to Aristotle and Aquinas who taught that essence precedes individual existence.[citation needed] Although it was Sartre who explicitly coined the phrase, similar notions can be found in the thought of existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger, and Kierkegaard.

Some interpret the imperative to define oneself as meaning that anyone can wish to be anything. However, an existentialist philosopher would say such a wish constitutes an inauthentic existence – what Sartre would call “bad faith”. Instead, the phrase should be taken to say that people are defined only insofar as they act and that they are responsible for their actions. Someone who acts cruelly towards other people is, by that act, defined as a cruel person. Such persons are themselves responsible for their new identity (cruel persons). This is opposed to their genes, or human nature, bearing the blame.

As Sartre said in his lecture Existentialism is a Humanism: “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards”. The more positive, therapeutic aspect of this is also implied: a person can choose to act in a different way, and to be a good person instead of a cruel person.


Camus considers absurdity as a confrontation, an opposition, a conflict or a “divorce” between two ideals. Specifically, he defines the human condition as absurd, as the confrontation between man’s desire for significance, meaning and clarity on the one hand – and the silent, cold universe on the other. He continues that there are specific human experiences evoking notions of absurdity. Such a realization or encounter with the absurd leaves the individual with a choice: suicide, a leap of faith, or recognition. He concludes that recognition is the only defensible option.

Lastly, a person can choose to embrace the absurd condition. According to Camus, one’s freedom – and the opportunity to give life meaning – lies in the recognition of absurdity. If the absurd experience is truly the realization that the universe is fundamentally devoid of absolutes, then we as individuals are truly free. “To live without appeal,” as he puts it, is a philosophical move to define absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively. The freedom of humans “is thus established in a human’s natural ability and opportunity to create their own meaning and purpose; to decide (or think) for him- or herself.”


Facticity is defined by Sartre in Being and Nothingness (1943) as the in-itself, which delineates for humans the modalities of being and not being. This can be more easily understood when considering facticity in relation to the temporal dimension of our past: one’s past is what one is, in that it co-constitutes oneself. However, to say that one is only one’s past would ignore a significant part of reality (the present and the future), while saying that one’s past is only what one was, would entirely detach it from oneself now. A denial of one’s concrete past constitutes an inauthentic lifestyle, and also applies to other kinds of facticity (having a human body—e.g., one that does not allow a person to run faster than the speed of sound—identity, values, etc.).

Facticity is a limitation and a condition of freedom. It is a limitation in that a large part of one’s facticity consists of things one did not choose (birthplace, etc.), but a condition of freedom in the sense that one’s values most likely depend on it. However, even though one’s facticity is “set in stone” (as being past, for instance), it cannot determine a person: the value ascribed to one’s facticity is still ascribed to it freely by that person. As an example, consider two men, one of whom has no memory of his past and the other who remembers everything. Both have committed many crimes, but the first man, remembering nothing, leads a rather normal life while the second man, feeling trapped by his own past, continues a life of crime, blaming his own past for “trapping” him in this life. There is nothing essential about his committing crimes, but he ascribes this meaning to his past.

However, to disregard one’s facticity during the continual process of self-making, projecting oneself into the future, would be to put oneself in denial of oneself and would be inauthentic. The origin of one’s projection must still be one’s facticity, though in the mode of not being it (essentially). An example of one focusing solely on possible projects without reflecting on one’s current facticity: would be someone who continually thinks about future possibilities related to being rich (e.g. a better car, bigger house, better quality of life, etc.) without acknowledging the facticity of not currently having the financial means to do so. In this example, considering both facticity and transcendence, an authentic mode of being would be considering future projects that might improve one’s current finances (e.g. putting in extra hours, or investing savings) in order to arrive at a future-facticity of a modest pay rise, further leading to purchase of an affordable car.


Many noted existentialists consider the theme of authentic existence important. Authenticity involves the idea that one has to “create oneself” and live in accordance with this self. For an authentic existence, one should act as oneself, not as “one’s acts” or as “one’s genes” or any other essence requires. The authentic act is one in accordance with one’s freedom. A component of freedom is facticity, but not to the degree that this facticity determines one’s transcendent choices (one could then blame one’s background for making the choice one made [chosen project, from one’s transcendence]).

Facticity, in relation to authenticity, involves acting on one’s actual values when making a choice (instead of, like Kierkegaard’s Aesthete, “choosing” randomly), so that one takes responsibility for the act instead of choosing either-or without allowing the options to have different values. In contrast, the inauthentic is the denial to live in accordance with one’s freedom. This can take many forms, from pretending choices are meaningless or random, convincing oneself that some form of determinism is true, or “mimicry” where one acts as “one should”.

Plato’s Cave

In book seven of Plato’s The Republic, he tells us about some people chained in a cave, forced to watch shadows across a stone wall.The group of prisoners has been living there in chains since their birth. They have never seen the outside world, only shadows of it. They have no knowledge of anything beyond their miserable lives in the cave. 

The prisoners are chained facing a wall and can’t turn their heads. There’s a fire behind them which produces some light. Occasionally people pass by that fire with animals and objects or figures that are cast in the wall, and the prisoners can see their shadows. All that the prisoners know are those shadows. They name them and believe they are real entities. They talk about the shadows with enthusiasm and are fascinated by them, thinking that if you pay attention, you can succeed in life. 

One day, a prisoner manages to free himself from the chains and step outside the cave to see the outer world. At first, the sun burns his eyes, but then they adjust, and he finds everything so colorful, exciting, full of life. He sees the real forms of the things he knew as shadows, like rabbits, birds, flowers, people, objects, he even sees the sky and stars.

“Previously, he had been looking only at phantoms; now, he is nearer to the true nature of being.” – Plato

People explain to him that everything he sees is real, and the shadows are just mere reflections. Although he cannot understand this at first, he then adjusts and sees how the sun is responsible for light and producing the shadows. 

The prisoner gets back to the cave and tells everyone what he had just witnessed, but no one believes him. His eyes had adjusted to the sun, and now he can’t see the shadows clearly as he did before. They tell him he’s crazy, and violently resist while he tries to free them (they even try to kill him).

The cave signifies ignorance.

Plato’s Analogy

Plato introduces this passage as an analogy of what it is like to be a philosopher trying to educate society. 

People are comfortable in their ignorance and hostile to anyone who tries to free them from it. The prisoners plotted and killed the one who escaped and went back to help them, just like the Athenians sentenced Socrates to death for trying to enlighten them.

This is an allegory of the life of all enlightened and wise people who get rejected by ignorance when they try to enlighten others. 

For Plato, most of us live like the prisoners in the cave. The masses are stubborn and ignorant and dedicate their lives to pursue shadows instead of the real thing. The shadows can be interpreted as status, wealth, among other things, as opposed to wisdom and knowledge. 

So, what then is the solution to this problem?

It is not our fault to be in the caves; we all begin there (the system makes sure of that). From an early age, we take everything they say to us as absolute. When we have questions too complicated for adults to answer, they encourage us to stop asking questions, therefore killing our curiosity. 

For some philosophers, ignorance is a sin, and Plato wanted to eradicate ignorance. But you can’t just go around telling people they are wrong, like in Plato’s story, they will just get offended and probably become hostile towards you (like Athens did to Socrates). 

For Plato, the solution to this problem was to educate society carefully and philosophically. He thought the best way to do this was with the Socratic Method. 

This is a very subtle process. You don’t force people to think, read some books, nor lecture them on any particular topic. You educate people without them realizing it. Plato believed that people could detect the errors in their reasoning with a little bit of help, you just need to give them a small clue, a push, so they realize where they are wrong.

You can’t teach anyone anything by making them feel stupid. According to Plato, we all start in the cave, but we have a way out, philosophy.

Allegory of the Cave – USU Student Success

Dr. Harrison Kleiner lectures on Plato’s Allegory of a Cave for USU 1010.