In his essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson exhibits an untraditional appreciation for the world around him. Concerned initially with the stars and the world around us, the grandeur of nature, Emerson then turns his attention onto how we perceive objects. “Nature” seeks to show humanity a new form of enlightening the human spirit and urges the formation of a strong link between man and the Universal Spirit. Emerson sees nature as an inspiration for people to grasp a deeper understanding of the spiritual world.Emerson begins his essay by observing the omnipresence of nature, which garners respect from the observer. However, nature always seems distant, indifferent. Emerson then puts forth the idea that not everyone can observe nature, that one must have the capacity to appreciate, to feel awe and wonder, like a child would who does not try to understand but only appreciate. He personifies nature as a woman by giving it human emotions and actions, such as “Nature never wears a mean appearance”, and also that the “wisest man could never loser curiosity by finding out all her perfection.” The experience with nature that Emerson describes is truly sublime, magical and yet indescribably beautiful.Using stars as symbols of the universe, Emerson states that we take stars for granted because they are always present in our lives, no matter where we live. He then moves on from commenting on the faraway stars and begins to discuss the immediate landscape around him. He creates a bond between the stars and the landscape, furthering the theme of a chain linking everything in the universe. Emerson then makes a claim that the person who is most likely to see the whole of nature is the poet, distinguishing the poet from other people. He says that poets can see nature plainly, not superficially as many people do. Instead of using theories of the past that Emerson says need to be discarded, the person who yearns to see must reveal their inner child, accepting nature as it is rather than attempting to manipulate it into something it is not.Emerson’s referral to the Universal Being, which he identifies with God, is what is now identified as transcendentalism. Every object in nature requires an animating life force, through which, Emerson believes that they are linked. Emerson claims that he is nothing, but he sees all. He concludes his chapter on nature by stating that Nature does not have a personality that it alone devises. Humans, he says, give nature the human characteristics we perceive it to have.In the following sections, Emerson relates the idea of nature as an instructor to man and how man can and should learn from nature. Nature is a divine creation of God and through it men can learn to be closer to Him. He refers to nature’s beauty as the qualities of nature that have medicinal and restorative powers for humans. The special beauty of nature has a strong ability to relieve the stress and anxiety that many humans suffer from. Emerson points out that a person who passively loses himself in the landscape will be rewarded by nature’s regenerative powers, whereas a person who consciously seeks out such healing will be tricked by nature’s illusions. In Emerson’s section on the relationship between nature and language, he draws the comparison between words and the objects they represent in nature, and that these objects signify spiritual realities, and nature symbolizes spirituality. He illustrates nature as the interpreter between people, supplying the language that people use to communicate with. For example, he says that all people recognize that light and dark figuratively express knowledge and ignorance. The theme of universal understanding is emphasized further when he claims that each individual shares a universal soul linking that person to all others. Emerson claims that the relationship between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poets, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men. The world will become an “open book” from which all can read.Emerson then goes on to tackle the difficult question of subjective truth and the impossibility of verifying the truth of external reality. The average person doesn’t want to know what he thinks is real might be an illusion. However, whether or not nature exists as something distinct remains definitively unanswerable.After analyzing “Nature,” one can see that Ralph Waldo Emerson has a distinct, undeniable love for nature and the sublime. He believes that all enlightenment of the human nature, that all knowledge, that the relationship between God and humans, transcends through nature. Also, all ills and evils in the world may be traceable to this lapsing away from close attention to spiritual truths that comes from nature. Emerson theorizes that each person is a microcosm, a small universe corresponding to the macrocosm of the natural world. His greatest complaint is that we gain a limited knowledge of nature because we too readily mistake understanding for reason. Nature is the inspiration through which humanity begins to understand, not reason with, the natural world.
The hero in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in many ways embodies the self-reliant characteristics advocated by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Huckleberry Finn acts without consideration for his society’s morality, and without concern for others’ perception of him. However, contrary to Emersonian philosophy, Huck feels guilt over his actions that he believes are wrong in the eyes of society and has a very low opinion of himself; both traits that would certainly not be viewed by Emerson as “self-reliant.” Huckleberry Finn is a foster child; brought up by a drunkard father and usually homeless, he is accustomed to dressing in rags and sleeping outside amongst animals. While this is the life with which he is comfortable, and does not enjoy leading a “civilized” life, he still believes that the latter is what is “regular and decent” (Twain 9). Huck thus accepts his place at the bottom rung of the social ladder. While he is happiest when free to do as he wishes, without the restrictions of church or school or parental guidance; he nevertheless recognizes his inferiority to those who adhere to such conventions. Specifically, he admires Tom Sawyer, an unworthy idol, and constantly praises Tom’s intelligence, creativity, and even moral values. Huck Finn’s self-degradation, and belief that his own preferred lifestyle is not what is “regular and decent” is inconsistent with the beliefs of Emerson, who demands that all men believe, “the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (Emerson 22). Huck’s rearing by an impoverished and abusive father has left him with an ingrained sense of self-disdain that leads him to believe that he is wrong and that the moral values of civilization are correct. Although Huck recognizes the moral beliefs of society, he does not necessarily adhere to them. Throughout the novel, Huck’s actions show his selflessness. The most important example of this quality is his decision not to give up Jim. Although Huck has no qualms about the institution of slavery, and believes that he is stealing Miss Watson’s property in allowing Jim to escape, he nevertheless remains faithful to his friend. Huck believes that what he is doing is wrong to the extent that he even writes a letter to Miss Watson, informing her of Jim’s location. Ultimately, however, Huck does not give up his friend; he tears up the letter exclaiming, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (Twain 228). This action is evidence of Huck’s placing his own deductions based on his own experience over the values of society, and it is certainly self-reliant. Huck is not deterred by thoughts of what others might think of him—indeed, he is already a social outcast. This trait is certainly one that Emerson would have praised; he claimed that a self-reliant individual is not concerned with “what the people think” (Emerson 23). However, Huck’s lack of conviction in the rightness of his own actions is antithetical to self-reliance. Indeed Huck cannot believe that Tom Sawyer, a boy raised in a respectable family agrees to help him in freeing Jim; he tries to convince him otherwise. Huck says: “Here was a boy that was respectable, and well brung up; and had a character to lose…and yet here he was, without any more pride, or rightness, or feeling, than to stoop to this business, and make himself a shame, and his family a shame, before everybody” (Twain 247-8). Huck thinks it acceptable that a low-class person like himself would deviate from social morals, but cannot accept that someone who was raised “sivilized” would do the same. Despite being raised on the fringe of civilized society, Huck has not been unaffected by its supposed morality. While he does not always adhere to social rules, he does not necessarily question them, but is inclined to believe that he is in the wrong. Thus Huck’s independent-mindedness is limited. He certainly cares for Jim, but nevertheless sees him as inherently inferior because of his race. When Huck tricks Jim into thinking that they were never separated in the fog, he regrets it when he sees that he hurt Jim’s feelings but still he hesitates in apologizing, saying, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a n–ger” (Twain 98). While Huck is positioned in the lowest level of white society, he still sees himself as superior to Jim, a black slave. Huck’s inability to see past racial boundaries, despite his friendship with Jim, demonstrates that he is unable to completely cast off cultural propriety. While Huckleberry Finn demonstrates selflessness, he is not a model of Emerson’s philosophy of “self-reliance”. Indeed, selflessness is not a component of self-reliance; Emerson claims, ““I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me” (Emerson 22). Huck displays neither such selfishness nor such confidence in his own genius. Indeed, while his actions often stray from social norms, he does not think that he is in the right, but deems it acceptable for him to act “immorally’ because of his feeling of inferiority to civilized people. While his indifference to people’s perceptions of him is certainly a self-reliant trait, his self-contempt is not. Thus while Huck may be selfless, loyal, and kind-hearted, he is not self-reliant.
With the end of the civil war in America came the huge task of inventing a national identity. America wished to cut its European ties, and forge a new voice through literature, as it is through the word that a nation expresses itself. However even though the literature at the time was American in content, the form was European. A cultural distinction was necessary to elevate America’s status in the world, and this could be found through the embracing of America’s wholly individual landscape, using it as a creative force that would work on how Americans thought and wrote. Emerson and Thoreau perceived forging an identity as first and foremost changing their relationship to nature, and by using a philosophical prose believed they could influence the creation of an entirely individual nation.Emerson wished to extend his transcendental idea of the world by writing of the timeless ideas of nature, the universe and the human being that mixed with specific historical moments, and the state of society and its relationship to the individual. Emerson believed that by reasserting the idea of the spirit it would be possible to discover a realm of experience beyond the reach of conventional thought. The material nature of society had reduced life to a sensual experience, and Emerson wished to search for the laws that governed the senses, what is not immediately visible, the higher laws that govern nature. To do this it was necessary to look inside the life of the mind and of the soul, and find the knowledge that only comes with intuition and concepts working together. By looking beyond what is understood Emerson wanted to take the material life, that of an honest worker, and make it expressive of a higher being, bringing spirituality to everyday life. He believed the unadorned life of the American was more expressive of a higher truth and that a reformation of consciousness would bring back the harmony of language and nature that society had worn away. Transcendentalist thought believes that all nature has a moral meaning, and that the further mankind moves from nature the greater the corruption of these moral meanings. To define the self and the nation in an original way it was necessary to return to the origins of life, the deepest past, to the truths that precede human history and the foundations of human existence. If Americans could lose the veneers that society imposes they could develop a united vision of the world and restore to America the fundamental relationship with words. For Emerson’s ideas to be successful he had to work on the assumption that when presented with the facts all Americans would wish to find an individual spirituality that would elevate the nature of their menial work and bring a higher truth to their everyday lives. However if all Americans were to follow Emerson’s lead it would be necessary to retreat to rural settings, for all of society to return to nature, and in doing so bring down the industrial society that America had worked so hard to build. A moving and growing society that is constantly looking forward needs a steady structure and a reliable workforce in every field. It is all well and good to desire a more fulfilling life for one’s fellow countrymen but if this can only be achieved through a neglect of the country as a system then the society that has given one the chance to find a higher truth could well fall apart. This idea also bases its success on the belief that human beings are inherently good natured and unselfish, and would reject the material life for a way of life that would take them closer to nature and the universe, and the fact that America is now the world’s richest country and only super-power shows it was a choice the everyman was unwilling to take.Thoreau took the thinking of Emerson to the next logical step, believing that knowledge of America would come through the knowledge of the self. America was undergoing a mass period of industrialisation and social turmoil what with the abolition of slavery and social causes such as women’s liberation. Thoreau believed that by transcending to a higher spiritual level of existence American’s would lose the idea of the egotistical self and find a greater concept of form and truth. The philosophy of America has always been the idea of writing a self, of creating a social utopia that would echo throughout the world. Thoreau also recognised that American identity was dependent on a sense of space, and that by mapping the land and terrain, and being in a constant state of transition and motion Americans could only further their search for the ideal society. Believing history and geography to be unnecessary in interpreting the world he tried to encourage the philosophical idea that the world could be created by individuals through self-regulation. By exploring the self within and the universe beyond and by removing the needs of the self it would be possible to remove state structures and have a democracy of individuals.As history was open to manipulation a truer discovery of the world could be found through the universal force as recognised in nature, and experienced through nature’s constant present tense. Individuals could cultivate their sense of a moral duty and in doing so discover the invisible law of conscience that is superior to the law of the state. It is the idea that individuals’ law of conscience was aligned with the law of nature, that nature and culture should be one and all cultivated laws are secondary. These ideas put a lot of faith in the individual and the possibility of their success was all down to an interpretation of what the individual deems to be expressive of a higher truth. It works on the belief that all individuals, by nature, are honest and truthful, and most of all, moral. In putting such faith in the individual however, Thoreau is presenting the possibility for, as his writings are open to interpretation, individuals of an inherently selfish, greedy or hateful nature to justify said nature because they have searched themselves and found their true nature, even though the morals found would be the antithesis of Thoreau’s writings. When he talks of the universal force recognised in nature he sees America as a kind of universe, presenting a universal idea and way of life through which America could lead the rest of the world by example. This again is based on the assumption that when other countries throughout the world are presented with these ideas they will follow suit. It does not account for the possibility that this way of life might be rejected, and in being so arrogant about the success of the idea they immediately exclude any country or civilisation who do not wish to pursue a way of life in America’s vein. The practical demands of society also precipitate a failure of Thoreau’s teachings, as society would stand still if all American’s were to leave their towns and jobs in search of their own Walden. America was founded not only by people wanting a better way of life, but by a selfish desire to improve their way of life. Not saying that it is wrong for people to want to better themselves or improve the conditions in which they live, but the idea of forging a more prosperous and comfortable way of life is a naturally selfish act.As society grows and develops in a successful way its people become more accustomed to the ease that an industrial, and now technological age, provides, and therefore more unwilling to give up the material luxuries that society has provided them with. The spiritual demands of the individual are forgotten as people become more obsessed with every day life and lose the idea of a possible higher truth and natural law, due to the more prevailing cultural worries such as putting food on the table and getting the bills paid. To philosophise upon the nature of life and the mind, body, and soul also necessitates a naturally inquisitive nature and degree of intelligence, and a desire to become more spiritually aware, and if these are not already present within the individual it is all the more difficult to persuade such an individual to make such a change to their lifestyle. The relationship of the state to the individual also encroaches on an individual’s search for truth through spirituality as it provides the individual with another authority to answer to, and is all the more present as it governs the individual in a more visible way than that of the eternal laws of nature. Mankind’s development of and continued dependency on machines simply adds to the loss of a connection with nature. Nature is disrespected in exchange for man-made objects that have become practical participants in the creation and growth of society. In cities there is a cultivated countryside that is wholly unnatural, a kind of man made nature that’s purpose is to give the impression of a society that is in touch with nature and that even in highly populated areas there are places where man cannot develop.One must also remember that in trying to write the nation both Emerson and Thoreau were looking at life in an entirely idealistic way, a nice idea, but wholly implausible when considering the nature of man, which history shows to be selfish and greedy. Edgar Allen Poe however believed the truth of the self lay in the alienation of one’s self, and that being an American meant being locked into the self as there were no refined standards of living or an established cultural tradition. Contrary to the beliefs of Emerson and Thoreau, Poe wished to push emotional experience to its limit. He believed art was confined to a pure product of mind and that through his characters he could embrace the extremes of the psyche. He believed that literature, just as the self and as the landscape of America, should be explored and developed into something entirely American. He did not believe in the returning to nature for the reason that he was aware of the true nature of mankind. He wished to encourage his readers to question whether they could trust what they saw, believing extreme conditions of the psyche to be the truest form of experience, and these would outrun language’s capacity to deal with the expression of these emotions, showing language to be solely a form of communication and having less truth than Emerson or Thoreau might have one believe. He was similar to his predecessors however in the sense that he believed in a complete retreat into the mind to discover the truth of the self.The spiritual demands of the individual are neglected due to the practical demands of society, for although religion is a major part of modern American life, for the majority of people it is secondary to the cultural necessities that dominate the modern way of life. Transcendentalist thought was attempting to provide Americans with a practical accompaniment to religion that would shape the individuals as the collective group that form society, but it was difficult to harmonise the two as it proved impossible to have an individual group, a contradictory term that showed the two could not work in conjunction with each other. The self regulation that was necessary for transcendentalism to succeed was lacking in the workingman that it proposed to help, and the higher spiritual level such thought promised proved too difficult to attain. Its real failure however was in its assumption of mankind’s desire for a spiritual truth to life, as this was found to be secondary to society and to religion. As many Americans already believed their lives to be enriched by Christianity, what would a long self-examination show them that they did not already know? Over history individuals have demonstrated a lack of an ability to govern themselves and a lack of discipline to make a major change succeed, and transcendentalist thought proved to be just another impractical ideal.BibliographyNorton Anthology Vol.1 Norton 1998
In Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson describes his vision of the individual, a man dependent on himself and refusing to conform to social standards and expectations. The individual, according to Emerson, stands alone against the wave of society, listening to his own heart and disregarding the thoughts of others. He dismisses any inter-personal connection that holds humanity together in families, friendships, and nations, arguing that man’s only true support is himself. The true individual will follow his own path, and not look into the past or to other people for help; he will be a monument to himself and exclude any ideas that are not his own. Emerson envisions this individual as an ideal man, but any man that truly follows his advice will suffer extreme consequences, as would society as a whole. Each of Emerson’s most valued qualities in individuals go against human nature, forcing people to leave their comfortable lives and embark on an arduous journey for little or no apparent reward. Although Emerson valiantly argues on behalf of individualism, his arguments instead create a compelling reason to conform to the dictates of society.According to Emerson, the individual must by definition stand alone against society, but he fails to explain why individualism is enough of a reason to face the scorn of society. Emerson states, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist”, illustrating that any person who wants to become a real human as well as an individual must rebel against the societal structure. America, as the land of diversity and promise, glorifies the ‘individual’, and praises those select few who can follow their own path, but in reality very few people ever choose to step away from society because, as Emerson admits, “for nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure”. Humans, as social creatures, are driven by their very natures to seek out reassurance from other humans, and social status plays important physiological and psychological roles in each individual, so by placing an individual in a lower social position, Emerson is dooming all individuals to unhealthy and unsatisfying lives. The disadvantages of nonconformity are apparent, since the majority of people dislike individuals who do not fit into the organization of society, but the advantages do not appear as readily. Emerson, when explaining the greater value of the individual, argues, “it is only as a man puts off all foreign support and stands alone that I see him to be strong… Is not a man better than a town?” Modern America embraces the idea of community, and provides many areas of life where the individual alone would have no ability to succeed better than a group of individuals. Although men can be independent, they must also depend on each other for essential human functioning in contrast to Emerson’s ideal and isolated individual.While human love and the bonds between families and friends are central to the lives of most people, Emerson argues that all such ties to other people must be reduced in order to become an individual. While he does not entirely dismiss other humans, he de-emphasizes their importance. He explains, “I shall endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way”, arguing that his own needs and desires must take precedence over his relationships with others. Without secure ties to family, people lose a great deal of comfort and reassurance, and most people could not part with the love of others in order to stand alone. Emerson believes that all emotion is subordinate to the Truth, and therefore “truth is handsomer than the affectation of love”. In order to become an individual, one must place truth above comfort and love, but giving up these emotions is not an easy task. In all cultures, in all time periods, bonds have developed to tie individuals together into families; bonds of marriage, of mother, of father, and of child, almost always based on love, or at least a pretense of love. Love is often paired with hope, and provides a counter-balance to the loneliness and despair that fill the human experience, and by stripping humans of their ability to enjoy and be comforted by mutual affection, Emerson is arguing that true individuals cannot truly participate in humanity. Although Emerson might be able to “shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me”, the very thought strikes at the root of human emotion, for familial ties are the deepest and strongest connections that humans enjoy. By placing himself as more important than his relationships to others, he is revealing a selfish motive and a compelling reason why individualism should not be embraced; the path to individualism is lonely, and can never share the warmth of another human.By Emerson’s logic, becoming a nonconformist results in losing one’s ability to affect change in the world, because only with knowledge of the past can the future be advanced. Emerson emphasizes, “insist on yourself; never imitate”, showing his absolute belief in the importance of the individual over all others. He disregards the evidence of others in the past, and believes that men should not use the knowledge of others, but rather discover truths themselves. “Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare”, Emerson claims, thus showing that the study of older thoughts and works cannot bring about enlightenment. Without access to older forms of knowledge or philosophy, however, humankind is reduced to a pitiful existence, without any form of art or comfort. Language is often cited as a distinctly human ability, and one of the primary reasons for its success was the continuance of ideas that it ensured. Rather than having to make the same mistakes every generation, language allowed individuals to pass on knowledge to the next generation, and with each generation so furthered, humanity took another step away from primitive existence. In addition, he viewed new technology as helping to cripple mankind, for “his [man’s] note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents”. In recent years, however, advances in technology have increased the knowledge available to man and helped develop new theories. All of the modern sciences, from biology to physics, depend on new technology, and the sharing of ideas has led to new developments and theories. According to Emerson, “it will happen for a time that the pupil will find his intellectual power has grown by the study of his master’s mind”, but the pupil will fail to continue to learn. Emerson often gives Plato as a source of wisdom, commending his works and his genius, but almost all of Plato’s early works were dependent on his mentor, Socrates, and even in his later works Plato uses Socrates as his mouthpiece, a clear example of a pupil using and expanding upon the knowledge of his elders. An Emersonian individual, deprived of the knowledge of his forefathers, could not discover theories that advanced the species as a whole, because in order to achieve new heights, one must stand on the shoulders of others; the individual would be too concerned with the simple problems already solved to create any revolutionary techniques or thoughts.While Emerson promotes individualism, telling people to become nonconformists, throw off relationships, and ignore the knowledge of the ages, his own advice would create utter chaos if carried out, and the extent to which his individual opposes human nature provides a persuasive reason to join with the majority and refuse to individualize. Humankind is designed by nature to cooperate and interact, and forcing an individual to separate from society and face the scorn of a united majority deprives him of any sense of belonging and happiness. Further severing the ties to community, Emerson denounces family, placing genius and truth above simple inter-personal bonds. Finally, Emerson seeks to continue to isolate potential individuals by cutting them out of time and denying them the history and information provided by the past. In Emerson’s eyes, an individual stands alone, unsupported by community, family, and history, but without such supports, any man is doomed to failure, because of the interconnected nature of men. A world of individuals would then be composed of isolated men, each moving to their own rhythm, a world without order or justice, each man’s inner truth being his sole guiding force. Reality shows that such complete independence is doomed to fail, for in societies that ignore the conditions of other humans, any one person could easily dominate and subjugate any other people without fear of a coordinated uprising. Humanity would be stripped of its strength and divided, unable to defend against any attack and unable to remain in a state of peace as different individual’s paths cross and intersect. Given that Emerson’s individualism leads to a Hobbesian state of nature, each man above the judgment of others and so free to act according to any of his desires, individualism loses its appeal, and group conformity seems a small price to pay to prevent such a world. Emerson praises individualism, but when his arguments are closely examined, they demonstrate the weakness of acting alone and encourage people to lose rather than seek individuality.
One of the greatest problems that readers have when reading Emerson’s work is grasping his religious beliefs. Religion is essential to Emerson because every essay he wrote seems filled with references to earning a more perfect relationship with God. Emerson’s emphasis on a “universal soul flowing through individual souls” can strike us as mystical and abstract, and, therefore, hard to grasp. Emerson’s belief in individualism and accepting Unitarian principles, this is based fundamentally on someone’s private relationship with God and on the individual’s own judgment in matters of morals and ethics. Contrary to biblical Christianity, Emerson believes God is an image of what we should try to be like, we are the individual that trumps everything in society, and to be right with God we must be perfect. Rather than seeing the truth about God, Emerson believed God was no more divine than you or I.
Emerson saw Jesus not as God, but as the most significant example of what all humans should look up to. Emerson says about God, “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.” (Emerson, Divinity School Address) Emerson’s view of God suggests that people should not necessarily believe in a God through ideas seen in the Bible, and shown in nature, but instead use their own understanding through poetry and philosophy to determine their own God. His beliefs do not reflect a Christian worldview. Instead, they base man’s salvation on his own intuition. The bible says God is creator and redeemer of Humans. The Bible reads, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (ESV, Colossians 1:16) The Bible clearly states that God is our creator, redeemer, father, and King. God is the divine being who died for our sins, came back to life to save us from our sins, and show us how to live a life of Righteousness. Even with so many different views of who God is today, there is only one logical explanation for who God is. God is our creator and redeemer; we are his people. In Emerson’s point of view, we are the head of ourselves, and there is no greater person. In the Bible’s point of view, God is our King, and if we trust in him, we can become Children of God.
In terms of human perspective Emerson believes people to should see the things in the world as minor details of the whole universe and to trust their own intuitions. “Society is a joint stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.”(Emerson) Emerson teaches that society pushes for conformity and not what is best for us and as a result, he builds up a picture of how society has become an institution that deprives its members of basic freedoms important to self-reliance. The Bible says that if we believe in Christ, we are children of God. “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12) People do nothing to deserve being a child of God, there is nothing people can do to take it away. People can’t become more of a“child of God” by his/her own merits, and people can’t become less of a “child of God” by someone’s mistakes. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others, and easier to think we’re better than people who are living their lives in sin. In reality, we’re no better than they are. Contrary to what Emerson believes and teaches, God tells us no actions can get us right with God, only through the Holy Spirit can we be saved.
Emerson, in another departure from purely traditional theology, believes that salvation depends on intuiting our soul’s connections to what He says is the “World-Soul” or “Over-Soul”. The more we come to realize this “Over-Soul,” the more perfect we become. Emerson says, “Nature has a higher end, in the production of new individuals than security, namely ascension, or the passage of the soul into higher forms.” (Emerson) Emerson’s view suggests that an individual can reach truths through spiritual intuitions that surpasses reason and a clear experience. Their basic point was a belief that God is present in everything. The Bible says that in order to be saved, we must trust in Jesus Christ. “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God rose from the dead, you will be saved.” To be saved we must understand and truly believe the gospel, repent of our sinful way of life, be baptized by water into Christ, and live a new life by the commandments of Christ. The only accurate way to be saved and to get right with God is through him. Not by works of righteousness, but by the renewal of the Holy Spirit.
Contrary to biblical Christianity, Emerson believes God is an image of what we should try to be like, we are the individual that trumps everything in society, and to be right with God we must be perfect. To Emerson, God is a normal human being who we should look up to, we are the individual that is the head of everything, and to be right with God we must be flawless. The Bible says that God is the authority, we are his people, and to be right with him we must believe in him. Emerson had the wrong view of Christianity. The only way people can be truly happy is to submit to Christ.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is generally remembered as one of the most influential writers of the American Renaissance. He is the father of the philosophical movement Transcendentalism, that is, the American equivalent of the European movement Romanticism. During his career, Emerson wrote several essays and delivered more than 1500 lectures all around the United States. Even if his written outputs had a significant impact on the American authors of the following generations, Emerson earned his living and obtained his popularity as a public lecturer. Oratory is, indeed, Emerson main strength, as well as the subject he analyzed more in his works.
In both his essays and journal, Emerson acknowledges that oratory was not merely an exhibition of one-person opinion; rather, successful speech produces a synthesis between speaker and hearer that reveals a mutual identity. According to the literature professor Granville Ganter, “Emerson’s sense of successful oratory is closely tied to the concept of abandonment, a word he associates with the oracular genius” (270). Ganter affirms that Emerson believed that everyone has the quality to be a successful orator, but that not everyone goes through enough hardship to develop their skills. Both in his essay “Self-Reliance” and in his speech “The American Scholars,” Emerson asserts that scholars and orators need to undergo poverty, tedium, adversity and solitude in order to progress. In his speech “The American Scholar,” Emerson says, But he, in his private observatory, cataloging obscure and nebulous stars of the human mind, which as yet no man has thought of as such, — watching days and months sometimes for a few facts; correcting still his old records, — must relinquish display and immediate fame. In the long period of his preparation he must betray often an ignorance and shiftlessness in popular arts, incurring the disdain of the able who shoulder him aside. Long he must stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept — how often! — poverty and solitude. (540) Emerson highlights the difficulties that scholars could encounter during their paths, and he emphasizes the importance of succumbing to ignorance and laziness to understand one person’s potential and limitation. It is not possible, in fact, to evolve without knowing until what extend we are able to learn. Moreover, Emerson insists that scholars and orators should be wary of immediate success because it does not necessarily denote knowledge and mastery. On the contrary, after a life of privation and misfortune, intellectuals achieve awareness of their competences.
For Emerson, however, knowledge is not something that men can acquire just from the outside world and from experience, but it is a characteristic that is innate. According to the philosopher Philip Kitcher, Emerson has been influenced by Kant’s idea of “a priori knowledge” (4). Actually, Emerson incorporated Kant’s philosophy in his own connecting the idea of a priori knowledge to the idea that “words by themselves refer to material object, but ideas transcend the physical word. Still, until ideas are expressed in concrete language, they are meaningless abstraction. […] Metaphor fuses the material and ideal, unifying and giving meaning to the experience” (Berlin 526). Therefore, if words express concrete object and metaphors combine the physical and the metaphysical, the orator’s task increase its value. The orator should use metaphors to express what cannot be known in other way simplifying people’s understanding of reality. Emerson, however, claims that the orator’s job is so specific, that the public speaker should welcome other works to not loose contact with reality. In the American Scholar speech, Emerson explains this concept using an extensive metaphor saying, “In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” (537). Ideas are innate, but they can be developed only after getting in contact with the outside world, so the speaker has the task to let this idea flourish. In order to let ideas prosper, the orator has to do physical work. Yet Emerson claims that orators instead of focusing on discovering of new concepts are just repeating and reformulating other people toughs.
Even if Emerson over-criticized his contemporary lack of originality, he is really fascinated by the figure of Edward Taylor. Taylor was an English pastor, poet and physician who migrates from England to the United States in 1668; he was famous for his sermons that Emerson defined as the perfect example of almost perfect speech (Stanford). Emerson had the opportunity to listen to a Taylor’s speech on Temperance March 13, 1837, the same year in which Emerson himself made his greatest public address (Oliver). In this occasion, Emerson wrote on his journal that Taylor brought the dynamic of his personality and creativity into “harmonious relationship” with his audience (22). He was amazed by Taylor ability to extemporize his speech and to construct a perfect oration without using a defined method. Taylor talent lay, in fact, in the connection he created with the audience. He engaged the audience to such an extent that Emerson described him as a “creature of instinct whose illustration keeps us broad awake” (25). Emerson also acknowledge to Taylor the ability to observe analogies between nature and spirit. In his journal, he wrote that Taylor used the material world to seek an understanding to the spiritual world making the spiritual world more understandable to the faithful (27). For Emerson, man could only be free when he is guided in his action by his consciousness reached to the understanding of the spiritual world, and “the business of the preacher-orator is to bring his audience to a state of consciousness” (Ray). Nevertheless, the main quality that Taylor had, and that Emerson recognized as the fundamental characteristic the perfect orator should have, was the ability to use the knowledge inherited by the “man thinking” of the past and integrate it with his own understanding.
Emerson often criticized his contemporary because they emulated other works without contributing to the creation of new ideas. In the American Scholar speech, in fact, he warned the Harvard students of the danger that books represented to them and to their imagination. He argued that books should be an inspiration, and that scholars and orators should never consider them as an absolute truth. In his speech, Emerson said, The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates. In this action, it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence, it is progressive. The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they, ⎯ let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates. […] On the other part, instead of being its own seer, let it receive from another mind its truth, though it were in torrents of light, without periods of solitude, inquest, and self-recovery, and a fatal disservice is done. Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over influence. The literature of every nation bear me witness. The English dramatic poets have Shakspearized now for two hundred years. (540) Emerson used Shakespeare as a concrete example to validate his point. He affirmed that Shakespeare was a genius because he succeeded in creating something new, but that all the English authors that came after him tried to emulate his works failing the main task of a scholar: generate new ideas. He also stressed the fact that American authors had a greater need to create new ideas because they needed to detach themselves from the European cultural tradition. The orator represents the essence of Emerson desire of an American cultural identity: he is the person whose main task is to transmit culture and ideas, to make people discover new interests and expands their knowledge, and he can be defined as the connection between intellectual and physical men. The orator should use his personal experience to expand his knowledge as well as to develop his audience comprehension of both the natural and the spiritual world. He has not only the opportunity but also the duty to create an American identity and be part of what Emerson defines as “Man thinking”
Berlin, James A. “Rhetoric and Poetics in the English Department: Our Nineteenth-Century Inheritance.” College English, vol. 47, no. 5, pp. 521–533. JSTOR.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” The Norton Anthology American Literature, Nina Baym, pp. 549–566. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.”
The Norton Anthology American Literature, Nina Baym, pp. 536–548. Ganter, Granville. Republican Pleasures: Emerson’s “Circles,” Oratory, and the Log Cabin Campaign. Vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 257–274.
Kitcher, Philip. “A Priori Knowledge.” The Philosophical Review, vol. 89, no. 1, 1980, pp. 3–23. Oliver, Egbert S. “Emerson’s Almost Perfect Orator: Edward Taylor.” Today’s Speech, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 20–22. EBSCOhost.
Orth, Ralph E., ed. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. VI, 1824-1838. Harvard UP, 1966.
Ray, Roberta K. “The Role of the Orator in the Philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Speech Monographs, vol. 41, no. 3, Aug. 1974, pp. 215–225.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a highly acclaimed philosopher, among other achievements. With a firm transcendentalist mindset, Emerson wrote a number of essays dedicated to the transcendentalist movement of the 19th century; one of which was Self-Reliance. In this thought-provoking text, Emerson expresses his opinions on a number of topics which revolve around the subject of “self-reliance” in an oracular and authoritative manner. His self-assured statements therefore may come off as unreasonable at times, and even contradictory. This essay will look into two quotes from Self-Reliance which appear to be inconsistent with one another, and then attempt to harmonize the two by examining Emerson’s messages in depth. One of the major topics Emerson discusses in Self-Reliance is “imitation” and how this negatively affects civilisation. It is brought to light in the second paragraph of his entire essay, and from the very first line of which readers are able to discern his views on the matter, as he straightforwardly writes, “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction … that imitation is suicide.” In very simple words Emerson conveys his standpoint. He goes on to elaborate on the ignorance of imitation, insisting that society demands conformity out of every man and therefore by imitation we conform and stray from individuality – which he calls our “genius” – and so suffer from losing ourselves, which is similar to suicide. Emerson fundamentally repeats this notion throughout his essay: “Insist on yourself; never imitate” is only one of a copious of instances where he emphasizes on the importance of rejecting imitation. However, towards the end of his essay, when he begins to list final topics for scrutiny – such as issues of prayer, society and progress – Emerson brings back the matter of imitation while elaborating on his point numbered “3”, where he criticizes the concept of travel. Here he states, “We imitate; and what is imitation but the travelling of the mind?” after denouncing men who travel “to be amused” and declaring that travel is, on the whole, an absolutely unnecessary act.
At first glance, it appears as if this second quote regarding imitation contradicts the first, giving the impression that “the travelling of the mind” is similar to meditation, whereby the brain travels to distant places without leaving the physical comfort of one’s home. Since he proclaims that “the soul is no traveller: the wise man stays at home with the soul,” it is evident that Emerson believes that “wise men” do not need to leave their homes to seek beauty or knowledge, as they are able to do so at home and solely through imagination. This is exemplified when Emerson states, “At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness.” Thus, it seems as though to support this conviction, he writes, “Our minds travel when we are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the travelling of the mind?” Now it appears that Emerson is in favour of imitation, as it is what allows our minds to travel without leaving our homes, as wise men do. However, as he continues on this explanation, Emerson describes the use of imitation in the features of “our houses”, proclaiming that people imitate foreign tastes, such as the Doric or Gothic architecture, in the design of buildings. He also mentions that “our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments”, which highlights our habit to imitate foreign art and beauty, and to essentially mould our lives to resemble those of non-native lands. Emerson explains this in blatant disapproval, summarizing his point by stating that Americans can find beauty far closer than they think, and so do not require travelling abroad to find inspiration for art. With this, it is obvious that Emerson once again scorns imitation. To sum up, the quote, “what is imitation but the travelling of the mind?” does not actually support imitation. Although it appears that Emerson advocates travelling with the mental capacity and not physically traversing about, in this quote he means that “the travelling of the mind” is similar to the unnecessary wandering of it. Emerson firmly dictates the needlessness of travelling abroad, as people cannot help but glorify the distinctiveness of foreign parts rather than celebrating the beauty and art that surrounds them in their native land. He supports this by mentioning that even while travelling to Naples in his mind, he realises the “stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical” which he “fled from” is still there beside him. This means that in spite of travelling far away, he cannot flee from his problems, and he implies the same for all mankind. Thus, the two quotes which initially appear contradictory are in fact relaying a similar message: imitation is unfavourable and obstructive in all aspects of life, be it in everyday life or in travel; to our souls and to our homes, and so should be condemned wholeheartedly.
For Emerson and Whitman, nature is more than just the trees that line the street, or even the flowers that rest beautifully within the vase. Both men find such a deeper harmony and value within nature, in a way that is very relevant to the transcendental theories each of them express. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, “Nature” and “Self-Reliance” and Walt Whitman’s, “Song of Myself” nature can even be considered in a spiritual light. Both men understand nature as a teacher who, when understood through the right perspective, can illuminate the divine order of life and qualities of the individual self.
Emerson finds an essential knowledge in nature; in many ways nature is a tool to truly understand life: “All Science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature” (215). Emerson is suggesting here that nature holds an ultimate truth. He explains, “We have theories of races and of function, but scarcely yet a remote approximation to an idea of creation” (215). With all the things that science has been able to explain, we still do not have an explanation for the essence of the creation of life. Nature is the ultimate example of life itself and to learn from nature one can unlock the truth about life’s great questions. Emerson understands this and asks, “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us and not the history of theirs? (214). Similarly, as Whitman observes an oxen relaxing in the shade he wonders, “what is/ that you express in your eyes?/ It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life” (1338). Both Emerson and Whitman support the idea of learning for one’s self, and the best way to do so is not to mimic others of the past but to tap into new thoughts of today unfolding in the very nature around us. Emerson stresses, “Man is timid and apologetic…He dares not say ‘I think,’ I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage” (278). Critical of this, Emerson uses nature to show that this is not the way people should think in order to properly participate and progress in life. He explains, “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day” (278). Likewise, Whitman stresses to “possess the good of the earth and sun” (32) and “no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through/ the eyes of the dead” (34-35). Both men ultimately feel that it is vital for humans to connect with the divine order of the universe found in nature in order to understand their own place in nature and the essential knowledge of life itself. Emerson stresses, “He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time” (278).
A true connection with nature is related to how one perceives, for one can only understand the divine order of nature if one can observe and participate in nature with an unbiased perspective. Emerson says, “few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing” (216). Emerson is suggesting that most people’s perspectives are convoluted with preconceived ideas and notions about the world around them. In order to learn from nature one has to be open to experiencing nature in a way that can reflect one’s own intuition. Emerson offers the metaphor, “The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child” (216). A child has “Retained the spirit of infancy” and does not rely on what he already knows but trusts his own self and explores nature with genuine curiosity and wonder in a way that he can truly understand what nature has to offer. Similarly, when Whitman relates to the child’s question, “What is the grass?” (98) he does not attempt an answer, but rather admits, “I do not know what it is any more than/ he” (99-100). Whitman is suggesting his ability to see nature through the heart like the child does. He allows himself to ponder the question and is most definitely exploring for himself, rather than subscribing to what he has already been told. He knows that his own wonders and ideas have meaning and validity. However nonsensical they seem at first, such as when he considers the grass as, “the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” (110) they ultimately lead him to meaningful revelations about life and death. Whitman eventually comes to the realization that, “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death” (126,) and comes to find “to die is different from what any one supposed” (130).
When approached with the right perspective, nature is not only a teacher of the world around us, but as humans are a part of nature, nature can also teach about the self. Emerson uses nature to relate to the transcendental concept of self-reliance. He suggests, “The poise of the planet, the bending tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital recourses of every vegetable and animal, are also demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul” (279). Through observing the order of nature, Emerson understands that just as nature operates in a self-relying manor, humans as part of nature are also best operating in a similar fashion. Whitman similarly observes nature and notices, “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and/ self-contain’d” (684-684). In his observation of the way animals in nature are “self-contain’d” he relates, “They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their/ possession” (693-693). Whitman is able to see himself in nature, and in his observation of the animals he learns that like the animals, he too would be best self reliant without the worry of possessions, duty to god, or external conditions.
While Emerson and Whitman understand that most people in society are filled with materialistic concerns and live in a way that is reliant on thoughts fed from others and the past, they believe that this is not the true way to live. Both find a very harmonious relationship with nature and emphasis nature as it relates to the transcendental elements of critical thinking and self-reliance. When one assumes the unbiased perspective similar to that of a child and immerses themselves in the nature of the very world unfolding around them, they can discover a greater truth about both the divine order of both existence and the self.
Emerson, Ralph W. “Nature.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 214-218. Print.
—. “Self-Reliance.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 277-280. Print.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 1330-1374. Print.
Steinbeck’s characterization of Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath stems from Emersonian thought, as expressed in Emerson’s essay “The Over-Soul”. Jim Casy forms beliefs based on the ideas presented in this piece, as evident through his action of quitting preaching, and his understanding that educating others by lecturing them is pointless. This enlightened leader learns to interact with his soul and acknowledge the presence of a spirit greater than man himself. The presence of Emeron’s ideas is forever present in the novel, as Casy is able to hand down these concepts to Tom Joad before his death, symbolizing the universality of “The Over-Soul.”
“The Over-Soul” inspired Steinbeck to create intellectual Jim Casy, the most enlightened character introduced in the novel. When Casy is first presented to the readers, his journey towards discovering his own soul has already started. When, on his walk home from prison, Tom Joad recognizes Casy as the preacher who baptized him, Casy immediately corrects him, saying, “I was a preacher… Ain’t got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears — but they seem kinds sensible.” (20). This statement is the epitome of Casy’s transformation as a character. He disconnects with God and reconnects with his own soul, and later with man himself. As the novel continues, Casy realizes that preaching brings no value to the common man. Rather, the real truth, taught by the universal spirit, can only be learned through moral action. This is a key concept in Emerson’s “The Over-Soul”. Here, Emerson states, “the action of the soul is oftener in that which is felt and left unsaid”. The importance of inner acceptance is highlighted here. Both authors emphasize the notion that true growth and learning come from the inside. Casy begins to understand that preaching is the exact opposite of this truth. By listening to his own soul, rather than to the lessons others try to teach, he will learn to do what is right.
The Grapes of Wrath also shows traces of “The Over-Soul” through Casy’s explanation of man being part of something greater than himself: “[M]aybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit — the human sperit — the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” (24). Once he comes to this realization, Casy begins to lead with example. He forms a labor union to show others that one man is not as important as the entire society. He urges many to join it in order to prevent further exploitation of the Okies, to prevent further harm to the proclaimed Holy Spirit that contains each and every member of society.
Although man may work to feed himself and family, he is ultimately harming the rest of humanity by doing so. In other words, by working for less, he is promoting the quick exchange of workers on a field, the simple act of hiring those who agree to work for nearly no pay. While accepting this job offer, man is leaving millions of others of his own kind to suffer and die, without jobs and without food. Casy justifies that this approach is immoral; man must stand up for his fellow man. In being part of the “Holy Sperit” (24), man is in fact obligated to do so. The notion that man is merely a small fragment of a collection that is the world as a whole is expressed in “The Over-Soul” when Emerson states “…we are nothing, but the light is all.” (6). In his view, man is a mere fragment of God’s work. By expressing this idea, Emerson emphasizes that one man means nearly nothing in the great scheme of the world’s vast society. In relation to the overall plight of the Okies, one man’s death is insignificant to the rest of the sufferers in the large Okie population. He should not take the underpaying job in hopes that it will help him survive. Rather, he must stand up with the rest of mankind to fight for fair treatment for all.
Casy teaches all these lessons to those he encounters throughout his life. However, like every man, the former preacher is not immortal. However, his ideals are. To ensure the immortality and universality of these concepts, they must be handed down to another leader. In this case, the leader is Tom Joad. Originally, he is hesitant to embrace these new values, as he strives to provide himself and his family with food and shelter. However, after witnessing the death of his mentor and the poor treatment of so many Okies protesting outside the campsite, Tom decides to fill Casy’s shoes.
Demonstrating his worthiness of this position, Tom leaves his family, saying his final goodbye to his mother at the cave, and ventures off to live independently. By doing so, he breaks off Ma’s dream of keeping the family together. With this gesture, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath clearly mirrors the concepts portrayed in Emerson’s “The Over-Soul”. Throughout the novel, the author shows the growth of Jim Casy alongside the progression of the Okie community. “The Over Soul” indeed influenced Steinbeck’s creation of Jim Casy’s character, yet another Emerson essay is relevant here as well. In “Self Reliance”, Emerson discusses the wrongful actions of man, a theme clearly applicable to the Okies, and the well functioning of a self-reliant community. The Okies’ inhumanity, the acceptance of jobs for low prices, and envy, the wanting of goods that they simply can’t afford, is reflected in this essay. Both Emerson essays ultimately tie together in claiming that lecturing others of the importance of self-reliance is useless; rather, a good teacher, one like Jim Casy grows to become, must interact with his own soul and learn from experience in order to properly convey his message.
In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson often radiates an arrogant and self-important tone, writing, for example, “A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me.” Although prideful, Emerson’s work is known for its empowerment of the individual, an idea that several facets of contemporary American media have adopted for their own uncompromising and self-reliant characters. In Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, the character development of Rorschach reveals important points of Emersonian philosophy in terms of individualism, truth, conformity, and integrity, making him a character Emerson would admire in certain respects.
The overarching belief of Emerson’s philosophy in “Self-Reliance” is the importance of individualism. As Emerson wrote, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” Valuing this idea above all, including love, society, and religion, Emerson believed that the ideal man must “live truly” in order to “see truly,” that is, to reach transcendence and attain self-reliance. In order to do this, a man’s goal must be to seek truth and to “trust thyself.” Rather than conforming to societal norms, “a man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.” And it is not just certain people, Emerson argues. All men have this opportunity to transcend, including the cynical anti-hero Rorschach, in his search for the brutal truth.
The transformation of Walter Kovacs into Rorschach involves the character coming to his personal truth that Emerson so desperately urges men to find. As Emerson writes, “It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth.” Prior to the main events in Watchmen, Rorschach develops an individualistic temperament, as revealed by his sessions in prison with psychologist Dr. Malcolm Long. In these meetings, the difference between Walter Kovacs and Rorschach is explained. Although the same physical person, they are two distinct personalities. Rorschach also conveys his philosophy to Dr. Long, attained through his search for truth. It is Rorschach’s conclusion, however, that Emerson may not agree with. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson optimistically wrote that all men can “follow the truth” and come out the other end happier for it. Rorschach is the exact opposite. But as Emerson writes, “if you are noble, I will love you.” No matter what conclusion Rorschach reaches, the fact that he attained it through truth justifies it in Emerson’s eyes. Moore invokes the case of Kitty Genovese through the sessions to illustrate the development of Kovacs’ philosophy. “Raped. Tortured. Killed. Here. In New York. Outside her own apartment building. Almost forty neighbors heard screams. Nobody did anything. Nobody called cops. Some of them even watched… I knew what people were, then, behind all the evasions, all the self-deception.” Disgusted by humanity, Kovacs came to believe that all of mankind was rotten, including himself. So Kovacs adorned “a face that I could bear to look at in the mirror,” thus seemingly rising above human morality and nature. However, as Rorschach later recognized, “I was just Kovacs. Kovacs pretending to be Rorschach.” Kovacs had not yet completely transcended. In order to do so, he had to fully become Rorschach by taking on a “certain kind of insight.” Emerson would reject Walter Kovacs, calling his ideology “a foolish consistency” and a “hobgoblin of little minds.” As Rorschach explained, “all Kovacs ever was: man in costume. Not Rorschach. Not Rorschach at all.” Imitation is inherently shameful, Emerson argues, saying that “envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide.” Kovacs just dressing up like Rorschach does not make him a hero. Rorschach, on the other hand, has a transcendent understanding of the world. It is a fully realized conclusion reached by the pursuance of truth, something that Emerson would surely admire.
This ultimate truth that Rorschach realizes is that there is no intrinsic positive morality in human nature at all, nor is there a moral gray area. Therefore, criminals deserve no mercy. Rorschach laments to Dr. Long on how he used to be too “soft on scum… Let them live.” Once again, Emerson’s views on human nature are much more optimistic than Rorschach’s. However, truth is still valued over all, as he writes, “truth is handsomer than the affectation of love.” Nowhere does Emerson state exactly what the conclusion the individualist should reach is. But Emerson does stress the importance of morality, writing, “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” All of Rorschach’s decisions follow a strict moral code, using truth as the guiding principle. The trigger of transformation between Kovacs and Rorschach was the brutal killing of a criminal who kidnapped, abused, butchered and then fed a six year old girl to his dogs. After Kovacs burned the man alive, he was “reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.” By fully becoming Rorschach, he transcended above the rest of humanity and its flaws. Much like his mask, there was no gray area to morality; only black and white.
In the years following the full moral realization of Rorschach’s character, he rejects conformity and authority by enforcing justice through the often brutal murders of criminals. Rorschach might as well be the poster boy for this Emerson quote: “Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none.” When the Keene Act is passed in the novel, an ordinance that outlaws superheroes, Rorschach continues fighting crime anyway. Dr. Manhattan details the effects of the law on the superheroes, describing how Rorschach “expresses his feelings toward compulsory retirement in a note left outside police headquarters along with a dead multiple rapist.” The panel depicts the note taped to the rapist’s chest, scrawled out, bolded, and underlined, “Never!” Emerson might understand even this middle finger to authority, as he writes in “Self-Reliance,” “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” As Rorschach explains, “We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we are compelled.” Justice must be served in Rorschach’s eyes, and following Emerson’s philosophy, “your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.” This avoidance of conformity to the rest of human morality and adherence to truth guides all of Rorschach’s decisions, no matter what the stakes or cost.
In the climax of Watchmen, Rorschach’s moral integrity results in his death, effectively making him a martyr for truth. The ending sees Ozymandias, the novel’s antagonist, saving the world by killing three million people. On the brink of nuclear war between America and Russia, Ozymandias created a fake alien threat to destroy major cities around the world, thus unifying the warring countries together. As Dr. Manhattan says, “exposing this plot, we destroy any chance of peace, dooming earth to worse destruction… If we would preserve life here, we must remain silent.” For any normal man, this moral dilemma is devastating, as Nite Owl aptly asks, “how can humans make decisions like this?” However, Rorschach, being completely transcendent of human morality, is able to immediately answer. “No. Not even in the face of armageddon. Never compromise.”
This success of integrity in Rorschach’s character would put Emerson in utter awe. As Emerson writes, “nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” When Rorschach makes his way back to America, he says, “people must be told. Evil must be punished.” However, he is stopped by Dr. Manhattan. Emerson complains in “Self-Reliance” that men are too “afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.” Rorschach, on the other hand, embraces truth and death, accepting his fate at the hands of Dr. Manhattan. “Of course. Must protect Veidt’s new utopia. One more body amongst foundations makes little difference. Well? What are you waiting for? Do it.” Emerson once wrote, “When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the footprints of any other, you shall not see the face of man.” Emerson admires these characters who become utterly unique, alone, and defiant in mindset, just as Rorschach has.
Of all the heroes in Watchmen, each eventually fails and gives in to the flaws of human nature. The graphic novel is unique in the way it challenges the idea of the perfect superhero, exploring the shortcomings of all men. Rorschach, whose only positive trait is integrity, is far from being the model American hero. But at the very least, Rorschach is the only character who has become self-reliant in Emerson’s vision, and nothing but truth and integrity brought him there.