Self Reliance and Other Essays
Healing Societal Issues Through Transcendentalism
In the late eighteenth century, romanticism swept through Europe and eventually the rest of the world, which ultimately played a key factor in influencing the philosophical movement known as transcendentalism that was created in the United States. Transcendentalism brought numerous new ideas and beliefs to the world that were extremely significant in helping men and women of all races stand up for their rights and freedom. All throughout history and even to this day, we see examples of transcendentalist beliefs used to battle the societal issues of the time.
Many societies in the past and modern day contain individuals that respond to the issues of the time by harnessing three major transcendentalist virtues such as individualism, idealism, and the divinity of nature which all cast key parts in the individual’s role. Individualism in transcendentalism is the belief that oneself is most successful when they are self-reliant and independent from any institution within society such as organized religion, government, and any other administration that would cause that person to not freely think for themselves.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, author of Self Reliance,was a major leader of the American transcendentalist movement. Like many others, Emerson believed that if a man did not independently think, then his mind would be poisoned because his thoughts would not be his own values and beliefs. People need to think for themselves instead of being confined by the rules of society set up by conformists. Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would after immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind (Emerson 59). Emerson uses a biblical reference in his essay Self Reliance so the reader can relate to the story and truly understand what he is trying to convey. The immortal palms are in reference to when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus was a man who was beloved and celebrated, however, he was also despised because his thoughts and ideas were different from the ones everyone else shared. People who want to gather immortal palms or do something that is worthy of rejoicing cannot be restrained by what is good and bad according to society.
To succeed you have to play off of your own intuition and follow what you think is right, even if it means going against authority or power. Individualism is an extremely important aspect in the role of the individual in a society that responds to the issues of the time. Without Individualism we lose our unique identities, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and virtues, therefore it would be impossible for an individual to take the role of addressing the issues in society because there is a lack of personal conscience. Before the romanticism period, there was a movement called the age of reason that took place between 1750 and 1800. This was a period of exploration and pursuit of knowledge however society was extremely strict and dull. At the beginning of the transcendentalism movement, the leaders hoped to stop these old attitudes towards life and make society enjoyable and full of wonder and awe. This was accomplished through idealism. In transcendentalism, idealism is the emphasis on creative thinking, raising questions, and innovation. Idealism was especially important in pre-Civil War America because African Americans and women were denied the same rights as white men and a new culture of raising questions allowed people to finally start asking why can’t everyone be equal?. Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and a women’s rights activist who fully embraced idealism because she created her own ideas which she believed in and wanted to fight for.
Truth spoke about her opinions and ideas in her speech Ain’t I A Woman, which took place on May 29, 1851, at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full? (Truth 99). During this time period, white men owned everything, therefore, Sojourner Truth wanted to raise questions. If white men have all the control in life and women barely have any opportunity, is it not cruel to constantly deny this group of people rights and freedom? By asking this, Truth appeals to ethos ultimately bringing her closer to the audience and building up her character and self-virtue. Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. (Truth 99) Sojourner Truth knows that most of her audience follows Christianity. By bringing up Mary, the mother of God, she appeals to logos by showing people in the audience a woman who can be trusted in a position of power. Raising questions such as Truth did plants the seed of doubt towards societal norms in listeners minds, which creates more questions to be asked and support towards her cause. Idealism consistently allows people to challenge things that they don’t think are right and just.
An individual needs to be able to ask questions and think creatively to address problems in society. Without Idealism, issues in our world would never be resolved because no one would consider asking if something was right or wrong which is why idealism is an extremely important aspect in an individual’s role in responding to issues in society. Transcendentalists did not believe in organized religion because it does not allow individuals to freely think due to the set of rules, ideas, and beliefs put in place by others. However people of transcendentalism thrived for extremely spiritual lives and believed that it was of the utmost importance to connect with nature because it is sacred. The divinity of nature for transcendentalists means that human beings should never interfere or try to control nature, their fate, or the universe and rather leave it be and let divine nature take its course as God or the Divine intended it. All human beings, male and female, were created equally in the eyes of the divine. When people disobey this, acting in an arrogant or egoistic way and turn to corruption or greed, they are trying to control nature and change fundamentals that they have no control over which breaks the relationship between nature and the soul. In Chief Seathl’s letter to The President of The United States, there are strong representations of corruption and greed in one group, the white men, while the Native Americans have grand amounts of respect for the divinity of nature.
“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you sell them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people. (Seathl 75) Chief Seathl makes it understood that his people have extreme gratitude for nature’s beauty and sacredness. His detail when describing each aspect of the land they have come to know shows that he and his people take the divinity of nature very seriously while the Americans depict gluttony. In 1852 the United States was heavily focused on westward expansion ultimately driving Native American tribes out of the land they were living on. The Americans wanted to buy the land from the natives and this baffled many of the tribes because, in their the eyes, the land was not something they could just buy. They believed that we are guests on this earth and it is not our right to be here, it is a privilege and we need to be respectful of nature, which all human beings are apart of. All things are connected. Whatever befalls earth befalls the sons of the earth (Seathl 75). At the time, America is creating all this violence and corrupting its population through greedy and egotistical ways.
Chief Seathl understood that his people who carry out the values of divine nature were far outnumbered so he includes this warning that whatever hurts the earth will one day hurt man. According to transcendentalist values, nature is sacred and in order for human beings to live a successful and happy life, one must have a strong connection towards nature which allows that person to understand that everything in life is connected and happens for a reason. When people decide to take different paths in life and break this code, corruption and violence rise which creates issues within society. The divinity of nature is not just a key virtue specific to transcendentalism. The first representation of divine nature takes place in the Holy Bible. In Peter’s second epistle, he tells the reader that the opposite of divine nature is corruption in the world (2 Peter 1:4). Peter says that if we take part in divine nature then God’s promises, also known as the covenants between God and his people, will be true. These promises are peace among everyone and eternal life. Like Chief Seathl and Peter the Apostle, individuals need to continue the job of spreading the word and living true to the divinity of nature to be able to resolve and respond to issues in the world.
As said in the Bible, if all men and women take part in divine nature, peace in the world can thrive which is why this is such an important aspect that supports an individual’s role towards responding to issues of the time. There have been individuals in the past and in the present have had great success in upholding the role of responding to issues within society. Many of these individuals portray characteristics that are in line with transcendentalism. By knowing the importance of a person’s ability to think independently and challenge social norms, while also understanding how to properly connect with nature and treat the environment around them, an individual’s job in addressing and resolving issues within society become more transparent. Embracing the three major transcendentalist virtues which are individualism, idealism and the divinity of nature allow each and every one of us the opportunity to one day become that individual.
Impossibility of Self-Reliance
Transcendentalism is the way of thought that society corrupts the individual and to escape this evil, corrupting society, man must live off the land and be self-reliant in nature. In the investigative report, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, Chris McCandless chooses to live as Thoreau did during Walden, engulfed in nature, with little outside influence, living off the land like the natives and being self-reliant. To some, this way of living is appealing as it offers unlimited freedom at the expense of not being in society, however, this should not be the way to live. The threat of death is always looming, because absolute self-reliance is impossible and nature is truly unpredictable..
The one of the main ideals of transcendentalism, is to be self-reliant. Living off the land and in nature, like Thoreau or Chris did, is indeed an act of self-reliance. However, this self-reliance while living in nature is composed of the desperation to kill, eat, and most of all, survive. This is represented by Chris’s journal, nearly every single day, Chris wrote about what he ate, rather than exploring the inner country of his soul. (183). Chris set out with the idea to find and let his true self-reliant identity shine while he escapes the society that limited his freedom, however as his journey progressed, Chris’s priorities changed. His main priority was to find something that provided him with enough to survive everyday, which still happens to be living off nature, however even though he was surviving, living off nature, and being self-reliant, his mentality weakened over his journey. Eventually, he longed to be back in the evil, corrupt society, the exact same community that he desperately wanted to get away from. Man is truly at nature’s disposal. Nature is invincible and unpredictable, the beauty of nature attracts people and yet this beautiful nature can’t be controlled by man. People who venture out into nature are at nature’s will, because controlling nature is impossible.
Both Thoreau and Chris aren’t truly living by the ideals of transcendentalism, they both are still connected to society. In Thoreau’s Walden, Thoreau explains how his life at the Walden Pond is actually very close to society: I was seated by the shore of a small pond, about a mile and a half south of the village of Concord.(Walden, II). Thoreau, being a ‘transcendentalist’, lives in nature, ‘away’ from society, however he never really escapes society, thus not making him a true transcendentalist. Again, one of the main ideas of transcendentalism is to escape the corrupt society that takes away people’s freedoms, but he stays so close to a populated village. Thoreau could have explored for miles and miles and truly lived by the ideals of transcendentalism, and yet didn’t. Men can’t escape society. In someway society had such an effect on Thoreau, that he had the desire to be near not one, but two villages. Thoreau only lives about a thirty minute walk away from the village of Concord. Chris, just like Thoreau, had the desire to get himself back into civilization. Krakauer infers, … McCandless decided to return to civilization. and get himself back into the world of men and women, where he could could chug a beer, talk philosophy, enthrall strangers with the tales of what he’d done.(168). Men who have lived in a society can never escape its influences and values. Living in nature and being self-reliant requires man to be alone and accompanied by only himself. This way of living is unrealistic since men naturally want to stray from situations that are too uncomfortable or tough.
Being lonely for any amount of time, no matter what, will cause man to have the desire to be back in a society surrounded by people. So the idea of transcendentalism is not the way one should wish to live by and is impossible to truly live by. Eventually, the goal of rebelling against a corrupt society by escaping and living off nature, only results in the desperation to survive by any means necessary. Essentially, the mental attitude about society changes and a society that once limits one’s freedoms and was the corrupt enemy, now becomes an appealing place to live, a safe-haven. It is truly impossible to properly live by the ideals of transcendentalism, as self-reliance eventually turns into desperation, and the evil, corrupt society transforms into an appealing utopia.
Who Is Ralph Waldo Emerson?
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think(Ralph Waldo Emerson). Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American philosopher and spokesman for the American Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists movement consists of a group of New England romantic writers, who believed that intuition was the means to truth.
In other words, to be true to yourself. In 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay, Self-Reliance, to introduce the American Transcendentalists. In his essay to the public regarding the Transcendentalists movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson is attempting to express the idea of being your own person instead of just copying others.
In the beginning of his essay, Emmerson is expressing how one should value their true self instead of being someone they are not. To demonstrates, he uses various analogies to reveal, There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him till.. (Emerson). By comparing envy to ignorance, Emerson feels that those who have desire and jealousy to be someone else are ignorant to that person’s problems. Therefore, they should not want to be someone else, for no one is perfect and have their own issues. He views imitation as suicide because imitating someone would mean killing your own voice, ideas, and creativity. Emmerson continues by stating that the wide universe is filled with people imitating and relying on others, and people should use what they are given to build their own originality. Emerson’s use of analogy and repetition is to encourage readers to appreciate their true self and to feel confidence or powerful within themselves,
Later in his essay, Emerson writes in a candid tone to let readers know that not everyone would be accepting to their true self. For instance, using descriptive language, he divulges:
For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The bystanders look askance on him in the public street or in the friend’s parlour. If this aversation had its origin in contempt and resistance like his own, he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. (Emmerson)
Emerson uses the word displeasure to show readers that the world will and will always judge those who decide to expose their true self instead of changing themselves in order to fit in with society. He then states that people should not let a sour face change who they really are. Emmerson expresses that these judgmental people are everywhere even among their own friends. Throughout the essay, Emerson uses descriptive language to help readers understand that people will keep criticizing them until they change to fit society’s standards. He uses descriptive words hoping readers will continue to take what the universe gave them to mold themselves into the person who they really are because at the end of the day the judgmental stares fade away into nothing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, Self-Reliance, influences readers by advising them to find self-indepence instead of obeying social expectations. He uses analogies, descriptive language, and repetition to teach the importance of self reliance and the challenging obstacles that come with. Emerson believes that conformity kills individualism and encourages readers to avoid conformity in order to reach self confidence. Also, Emmerson desires every person to self confident and different. His essay will forever continue to affect readers by giving them not only hope, but the confidence to express themselves truly.
Depiction Of Self-Reliance Responses
- In the piece, Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson makes various references and descriptions of what genius is, stating …what he has said or done otherwise…shall give him no peace.in the attempt, his genius deserts him. (Emerson 20). The implied meaning given to the reader by Emerson is that genius amongst men, rather than only having certain thoughts, is when a man, no matter his thoughts, is able to truly and fully believe that those thoughts are the truth, and the only truth for oneself.
- In the text, Emerson states that he believes that in every person’s life, they come across the conviction that, envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide, (Emerson 20). And in this statement, Emerson tackles the many ideas that he himself presents himself throughout his essay of self-reliance. The first of which being that individuals should stay individual, that is, that a person should forge onward through their own path in life, and as a result, will be much better off than someone who did not do so. With this in mind, the statement refers to Emerson’s ideas of individualism, and an individual who breaks away from social conformity in our society, and for Emerson, the ignorance and social conformity hinted at in his statement is what he is against. The idea that an individual who has true knowledge is one who stick to his own sense of identity, and remaining an individual apart from the socially conforming herd that is society, and as a result, achieving happiness, rather than lying under the shadows of others where one then suffers a slow death of their identity.
- Throughout the text, Emerson makes notes various comparisons between nonconformists, and the rest of society, both of which he holds different values towards in respect to his own perspective. Regarding the values Emerson holds for nonconformists in society, Emerson values the fact that, in society, nonconformists are truly individuals, creators who carve out their own path and views, and from there, reach their own personal truth of what they believe is right. Likewise, from Emerson’s values about nonconformists, the values he has of society are implicitly derived from those same values, that, …For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure… (Emerson 24). Emerson values of society are asserted that in society as a whole, nonconformity is viewed as a threat to their lie of stability, that society lies quaking in fear towards the uncertainty of reality, and as such, must adopt traditional practices and customs that appear consistent to others, rather than relying on only one’s self.
- In the text, Emerson asserts his own meaning of what consistency really is through his own values, that, A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. (Emerson 24). When Emerson speaks of consistency, the way in which he describes consistency is presented in such a way that relates to his views towards conformity and nonconformity in society. Of course, as time passes, the world constantly changes, and in society as a whole, people would rather follow the course of tradition, where they refuse openness towards new ideas or ways of thinking in order to solve problems. From this, the assertion that Emerson makes of consistency, is that, consistency is to reject ‘outside the box’ thinking, because, to the conformity of society, to openly think is to risk the stable traditions of society with the prospect of dealing with new problems, but as a result, the only thing the individual truly achieves is mediocrity in the face of one’s potential for greatness, a false claim of knowing, in a world of constant unknowing.
- In the text, Emerson mentions two groups of people who he views as different, the, little statesmen and philosophers [and the] misunderstood. (Emerson 24). Comparing the two groups that Emerson mentions, the people who he categorizes for the misunderstood are many notable, and historical figures known today, such as, but not limited to, Pythagoras, Socrates, Newton, and Jesus. For the group of little statesmen and philosophers, the people who Emerson categorizes as this encompass a broader spectrum of people with power, such as bureaucrats and politicians. Comparatively, in regards to the differences between these two groups of people, the misunderstood are people who follow their own path made by their own intuition, and whether or not that path is one of inconsistency, the misunderstandings that others’ have about them in their time show the trust they have in their beliefs in a society that tries to force off one off their own beliefs. In contrast, the bureaucrats and statesmen of society are people who refuse to rise against the social norm, whether that be in the form of an ‘intellectual-wannabe’, someone who seems to be able to answer any question, but only with ideas that serve to appease the masses, or someone who is too fearful to even speak out in fear of being seen as out of the ordinary.
- In the text, Emerson makes a more obscure statement that has more implied meaning through his values, rather than the words themselves, stating, the divine idea which each of us represents (Emerson 20). Regarding the text, Emerson’s words refer to his his strong promoting of individualism, that is, when Emerson declares that every individual is represented by a ‘divine idea’, Emerson is making reference back to the Transcendentalism movement itself. So, the description he presents to us for every individual in society, is that of having an innate potential for unlimited greatness in one’s lifetime given to one by God.
- In the text, Emerson makes the claim that, To be great is to be misunderstood. (Emerson 25). And in this claim made by Emerson, part of the meaning lies in his previous assertion that consistency is an urge made by society as a means of conforming, and appearing to be just like everyone else. With this in mind, the greatness of the person that Emerson references to is something any individual should agree with because, their willingness to believe in their ideas as the truth, and be themselves in a world that tries to change who they are, regardless of society’s misunderstandings of them, as well as many other individuals, …Pythagoras…Newton.[and] Luther, who were also misunderstood, but nonetheless, held firm to their own truth, were shunned by society, but are great because of that.
- In the text, Emerson makes the statement that, God will not have His work made manifest by cowards (Emerson 20). And in this assertion from Emerson, part of the meaning of it comes from what he sees as genius among men, To believe your own thought, to believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men. (Emerson 19). Together with this, as well as the innate human potential for greatness given by God, derived from Transcendentalism, the implied meaning of Emerson’s statement is one that I agree with, that is, truth is accepting one’s own uniqueness, and one’s self identity, however, some will never reach this truth, or realization because they are too afraid, and thus, they try to change the truth of one’s self out of fear or even reject it, since they do not believe their ‘self’ is truly good enough.
Confessions and Self-Reliance
All humanity struggles to answer the question: what is the purpose of life? And how does one achieve this purpose? Saint Augustine of Hippo, a prominent thinker of his time, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, an esteemed poet, both yearned to answer these questions. Using their life experiences, both men composed books with their own answers to these queries hoping to impart clarity to their readers. Confessions, written by Saint Augustine, is a biography from infanthood to adulthood.
In it, he describes the many difficulties he had to face before he was able to uncover what the purpose of life was. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Self-Reliance, an essay about discovering one’s own individuality and how doing that helps one achieve their purpose. On examining Confessions and Self-Reliance, it is revealed how Saint Augustine and Ralph Waldo Emerson perceive the purpose of life to be and how they believe it can be achieved.
In Self-Reliance, Emerson proposes that the purpose of life is to be completely individualistic and to attain greatness from one’s own self, without relying on society to dictate one’s life. According to Emerson, Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. 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 (Self-Reliance 21). By saying this, Emerson is implying that to rely on society is to give up one’s own freedom and individuality. He continues further by stating, The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs (Self-Reliance 21). Here, Emerson claims that society promotes conformity and devalues creativity and innovations. He urges readers to not conform to the ways of this word, but to accept their own identity and to further pursue it.
One way a person might pursue their identity in order to achieve the purpose of life is by staying true to his own self. Emerson states that, There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for the better, for worse. (Self-Reliance 20). A key phrase used in this statement is imitation is suicide. Emerson uses this language to convey to his readers that copying the lifestyle or ways of another person can result in the death or suicide of their own character. In addition, Emerson also mentions that to stay true to one’s own self, one must return back to their ‘roots’ or in other words, to their youth. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being (Self-Reliance 20). The phrase, confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age suggests Emerson believed that staying true to one’s self requires re-attaining the ‘boldness of youth’. He also specifically mentions that great men do this which indicates to the readers that in order to become great, one must become like youth.
Emerson also asks readers to not be ashamed of their thoughts and feelings but to be unapologetic of who they are. He expresses this by saying, What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it (Self-Reliance 23). Emerson clearly states that one must focus on what he thinks is the best for his life instead of worrying about what others say and think about one’s decisions. He also says that this rule determines the difference between being great and being average. Emerson adds, It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude (Self-Reliance 23). Here, Emerson claims that it is easy to follow what society says when one is living in society. He also mentions that it is easy to follow one’s own opinion when no one else is there swaying you and when you are in solitude. However, Emerson states that the greatest test that proves how much one truly trusts oneself is when one is living in society and yet one is able to maintain their thoughts without being influenced. Emerson claims that in following these rules one will achieve their purpose in life by becoming individualistic and by becoming ‘great among men’.
Saint Augustine however proposes that the purpose of life is to seek God and his wisdom, and, to humble one’s self in reverence to God. Unlike Emerson, who believes that one should seek his identity, Augustine believes that one must spend their life pursuing after God and His wisdom. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart. I began to rise up to return to you (Confessions 39). Here Augustine explains that in his life, he experienced a passion and desire to seek after the immortality of wisdom and to return to God. Because of this experience in his life, Augustine appeals to his readers to have that same passion and desire to go after that same wisdom.
Augustine also puts heavy emphasis on being humble before God and showing reverence before Him. Augustine states, Nevertheless allow me to speak before your mercy, though I am but dust and ashes (Gen. 18:27). Allow me to speak: for I am addressing your mercy, not a man who would laugh at me. Perhaps even you deride me (cf. Ps. 2:4), but you will turn and have mercy on me (Jer. 12:15) (Confessions 6). In this statement, Augustine compares himself to be dust and ashes. He brings himself down to the lowest of lows, and begs the Lord to allow him to speak in His presence. Augustine further emphasizes this by saying, Who am I and what am I? What was not evil in my deeds or, if not deeds, in my words or, if not words, in my intention? But you, Lord ‘are good and merciful’ (Ps.102:8). Your right hand had regard to the depths of my dead condition, and from the bottom of my heart had drawn out a trough of corruption (Confessions 155). In his opening, Augustine questions himself, asking What was not evil in my deeds or, if not deeds, in my words or, if not words, in my intention? From this, the readers understand that Augustine continuously humbles himself because he is burdened by all the wrongs he has committed. He feels unworthy before God and is thanking and praising Him for being good and merciful. In contrast to Augustine’s humbleness and desire to pursue God, Emerson believes in being ‘great among men’ by becoming fully individualistic and by seeking one’s own self.
Augustine also provides explanations as to how one might achieve the wisdom that is from God. Augustine suggests that in order to seek after God and His wisdom and to be humble before Him, one must move from the darkness to the light. Surely many return to you from a deeper hell of blindness than Victorinus. They approach and are illuminated as they receive light. Those who receive it obtain from you ‘power to become your sons’ (John 1:9, 12) (Confessions 138). Here Augustine explains that all who seek after God first came from a place that is a deeper hell of blindness than Victorinus, meaning that they came from not knowing anything about God and His wisdom. He then goes on saying, they approach and are illuminated as they receive light, meaning that as they start to pursue God, they receive light or, are illuminated as they receive wisdom that comes from pursuing God. In addition, Augustine also mentions, For a long time past I have been burning to meditate in your law (Ps. 38:4) and confess to you what I know of it and what lies beyond my powers-the first elements granted by your illumination and the remaining areas of darkness in my understanding-until weakness is swallowed up by strength (Confessions 221-222). In saying this, Augustine is implying that he has already received wisdom from God and that he is waiting for even more so that he can rid himself fully of his old ways.
Ridding one’s self of his old ways was something Augustine struggled with. He states, The new will which was beginning to be within me a will to serve you freely and to enjoy you, God, the only sure source of pleasure, was not yet strong enough to conquer my older will, which had the strength of old habit. So my two wills, one old, the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual, were in conflict with one another, and their discord robbed my soul of all concentration (Confessions 140). Here, Augustine explains the conflict between his old will and his new will. His new will was the will that wanted to pursue after God and seek Him, but his old will was the will that wanted to pursue the earthly treasures. However, his new will was not strong enough to overcome the old will. Augustine urges his readers to push the new will forward by pursuing God and to disband the old will by not giving in to it.
After examining Self-Reliance and Confessions by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Saint Augustine, it is clear that both men had different point of views on what the purpose of life is, and how one might go about in order to achieve it. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that the purpose of life is to be fully individualistic and to become ‘great among men’. However, Saint Augustine believed that the purpose of life is to pursue after God and His wisdom and to be humble in reverence before Him. It is up to every person to determine what they believe the purpose of life is; whether it is to be self-reliant, or whether it is to pursue after Higher Deity.
Analysis of Emerson’s “Nature”
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.
Huckleberry Finn: Self-Reliance or Self-Contempt ?
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.
Ideal Individualism and the Benefits of Conformity
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.
Emerson and the Bible: A Major Transcendentalist’s View of God
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.
Imitation in Self-Reliance: A Paradox?
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.