The Virtue of Emerson's Imitation of Christ: From William Ellery Channing to John Brown

Journal of Religious Ethics 45 (3):510-538 (2017)

Abstract
Christians have traditionally conceived of the moral life as an imitation of Christ, whereby followers enter into fellowship with God. The American Transcendentalists can be understood as extending rather than dispensing with this legacy. For Emerson, a person cultivates virtues by imitating those she loves and admires. Ultimately, however, the virtues enable her to innovate on received models, to excel by pressing beyond exemplars. Emerson's famous line, “imitation is suicide,” is not a contradiction but a fulfillment of the imitation of Christ, understood in his terms. In his own time, John Brown was the public figure who, for Emerson, most nearly exemplified this innovative imitation of Christ. An examination of exemplarity, of this artful union of imitation and innovation in moral and spiritual formation, sheds light on how modern agents can cultivate the virtues needed to be at home in the modern world.
Keywords John Brown  Ralph Waldo Emerson  exemplar  imitation  perfectionism  virtue
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DOI 10.1111/jore.12188
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