The Poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson
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.
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.
What Hangs in the Balance
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author of Self Reliance, was one of the leading Transcendentalists in the American movement and a truly “American” writer. However, he was not as dedicated as Henry David Thoreau, who spent two years living in the woods and detailed his life and thoughts there in Walden. Emerson was of a different breed, writing from behind a desk. His respected standing as an intellectual (attending Harvard College and Divinity School) allowed him to maintain respect for his writings. However, what does he really want to say? While he holds true to the idea of believing in yourself and not copying others, he seems to contradict himself in a number of places. His contradictions ultimately seem to point to a balance between isolation and conformism, while his language reveals a more important discovery about what he thinks his audience believes and how he tries to influence their views.
Emerson tries to hit his point hard early of believing in your own thought, yet in the first appearance of these sentiments in Self Reliance, he presents a troubling contradiction. Emerson writes, “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. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost” (19). To believe in your “private heart” and to “speak your latent conviction” are two very different things. The problem with these words is how are men supposed to believe what is true for them is true for everyone else if everyone else believes something different to be true for themselves? It seems that a world of men who embraced this idea would be uncooperative and there would be a mass chaos of individuals trying to force their ideas upon others. However, Emerson is not an idealist. His lifestyle in comparison to the lives of aforementioned transcendentalists clearly demonstrates this. He is much more practical. This being said, Emerson is crafty in his mission to reach a practical goal. He tries to push his readers to think beyond the point of even his own comfort, to consider the extreme. This functions in allowing his audience to embrace the ideas of self-reliance to an extent that is not the extreme presented in these primary lines. The effect can be equated to putting a large foot into a shoe that is too far to small in order to stretch it out. Emerson forces the foot of extreme self-reliance into the reader’s shoe as early as he can, so that by the time we are finished walking around with it, the shoe might at least be comfortable. Emerson later expresses what his actual idea is of a “good fit.”
Emerson presents his practical view of self-reliance as a balance between external and internal relationships, putting more weight on the individual:
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in 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. 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. (23)
Clearly, Emerson holds a view that the weight of the individual’s perception of himself is the ultimate factor in anything. He uses strong language, (“What I must do”) to emphasize the conviction that the individual should have and more vivid language (“perfect sweetness the independence of solitude”) to try to capture the essence of being self-reliant. Men want and love sweet; Emerson’s language creates an affinity between his readers to this ideal of solitude that he presents. However, Emerson does not present an extreme ideal of solitude as he seemed to present (using forceful words such as “imitation is suicide” (20)) in the beginning of Self-Reliance. In fact, he actually points out both extremes (“to live after the world’s opinion; solitude to live after our own”) not only as easy, but also as ways that will not make you great. Rather, if you want the “sweetness” of the great man, you must find the perfect balance, “in the midst of the crowd” while still keeping “the independence of solitude.” Self Reliance in itself functions as the primary example for readers of this balance, being an essay that clearly elucidates all of Emerson’s thoughts, published with the intentions of influencing the public. It also is able to embody in itself the conundrum created by Emerson of believing “that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men” (19). The question now, however, is why does Emerson want every man to reach this balance?
Emerson’s motives for trying to get man to reach the balance he presents can be examined through another contradiction he presents. Emerson writes: “The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. But why should you keep your head over your shoulder?” (24). Clearly, Emerson does not like to look to the past for any inspiration. However, he makes numerous references to important men of the past, even at the bottom of the same page where he condemns looking to the past. How can he tell you to not look to the past when he uses examples from history? Examining the quote helps with answers: “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood” (24-25). Emerson uses these historical figures as examples of greatness, the same greatness that he talks about achieving through the balance between outside influences and your own thoughts. The reason why he uses these examples and can get away with it while still maintaining the past should not provide inspiration is because the reader identifies these figures as great men. Emerson uses them as examples to inspire the reader to become great and to encourage them to not be scared of being misunderstood, as ” the inmost in due time becomes the outmost” (19). Eventually, greatness shines through as a result of holding onto and then pushing your innermost ideas outwards in a social realm.
The question of Emerson’s motivation for attempting to get men to reach the balance he has clearly achieved (a result demonstrated by Self Reliance itself) has still not completely been answered. While men who find the balance can achieve greatness, what does this have to do with Emerson’s biddings? The answer to this question is found in what Emerson writes towards the end of Self Reliance: “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other” (36). Clearly, Emerson is concerned with the advancement of society. From Self Reliance, we get a sense that conformism is the root of this problem and that self-reliance is the solution. Self-reliance as we have seen is a balance that leads to greatness. Great men, men that have changed society and advanced its cause and purpose, have attained this greatness. Emerson’s high praise of them clearly demonstrates that he believes they had advanced society. Emerson ultimately wants his work to influence people to become great, so that they can together, as individuals, promote the advancement of society and allow the “perfect sweetness” to permeate America.
Self-Reliance And Self-Contempt Of Huckleberry Finn
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.
Analysis of “A Nation’s Strength” by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the Context of National Consciousness
Poetry is arguably the most democratized art form. It is written by the common man, for the common man. As a result, it becomes an effective medium to express sentiments of nationalism which lie in the deep consciousness of the ordinary man, but are not directly expressed. Identification with a piece of poetry which is nationalistic in nature brings these sentiments to the forefront, and has the capacity to create a gushing wave of increased awareness and national consciousness. Such ideas can be reflected in A Nation’s Strength, written by Ralph Waldo Emerson. To better understand A Nation’s Strength and how it enables the poetic voice to unify with a national consciousness, it is essential to understand Emerson’s background, as many shades of his ideologies insidiously make their presence felt in the poem. Emerson was educated at the famed Harvard College in Boston and had a long association with the Church, which continued up until the death of his beloved wife, Ellen. After her death, he could no longer get himself to unquestioningly have faith. This seed of doubt sown in his mind preceded his role in creating the transcendentalism movement. Coming to transcendentalism, this was a movement which started in the 1830s, by a group of people who were inspired by Romanticism’s more instinctive and intuitive approach as opposed to hardcore rationalism. The period of religious rationalism in the early 19th century answered a lot of important questions which people had about why the world is the way it is in a logical manner, but left people wondering, what now? What more? They believed that when humans had been blessed with the power of intuition and imagination, why waste those by deeming only rationalism as the correct lens to see the world? The basic principles upon which transcendentalism was based includes fostering a relationship with God and with nature, as well as ensuring human dignity; their belief in human dignity led many transcendentalists to get involved in social reform movements, and fight for the rights of women and slaves. Emerson has multiple works which reflect his ideas as a transcendentalist, most notably, “Nature”. These basic principles of transcendentalism weave themselves into the foundations upon which the poem was built, and these ideas unknowingly enter the reader’s consciousness as well.
The poem is strategically titled “A Nation’s Strength” and this symbolism can be decoded by looking at the word Nation. In any form of colloquial speech outside of academic contexts, the words country, nation and state are used somewhat interchangeably. In reality, there are worlds of differences between the implications of each of these words, and the elements that each one inherently lays emphasis on. The terms Country and State have their foundations in contexts which have been politicized to a great extent. Country has historically been used to refer to land, and has evolved with time to imply a distinct region which is united under the governance of a given political entity. This definition for country can also be used non-problematically to define the term State. State is used to describe the Government in many contexts. Nation, however, is the standout amongst these three seemingly identical terms. Etymologically, it is derived from the Latin term “nation” which can be loosely translated to people, tribe or kin. The Latin term gave rise to the French “nacion” which means birth or place or origin. From French, the word crept into the English vocabulary and sat snugly in the niche carved out for nation and country, though there are certain fundamental differences. In the modern context, we use nation to describe a distinct group of people who are united by a group of factors: namely common descent, culture or language, and who generally tend to inhabit one particular area of land. Therefore, the term uses the similarities between people as its core idea, and builds upon this to enter into the more political realm of these people with similarities coming together in a piece of land to form a group. The implication is political, but the ideology is really not, and has its roots in the more organic relationships between human beings of similar circumstance. The narrative which Emerson weaves throughout the poem is a political one, but he has deliberately titled his work “A Nation’s Strength” when he could have just as easily used State or Country; the former case would have led to some pleasing alliteration as well. However, his usage of Nation acts as a prelude to the central message he attempts to convey through his writing, that people themselves are the only and most reliable source of strength in a Nation, because only those who make up a nation can make it great.
The poem has six stanzas, and is written in the relatively simply abab form. The literary devices have been kept to a minimum to let the power of the message shine through. The very first line is a question is “What makes a nation’s pillars high?” The next line asks a similar question, what makes a nation’s “foundations strong”. The analogy of a building is interesting, considering that Emerson goes on to describe how material conditions cannot make a nation strong. The building itself could be a mere device to symbolize the construction of a structure, and not the end result itself. The next two lines speak of what makes the nation might enough to defeat its enemies. Linking the first stanza together, we can infer that perhaps the poet is trying to create the image of a strong, secluded structure of a nation which cannot be breached by enemies, thereby instilling in the reader a sense of pride and duty towards building a structure.
The next three stanzas provide a crescendo like build up to the crux of the poem They describe everything which does not make a nation great, and each stanza addresses one particular element which most consider as either highly important or the most important factor towards building a successful nation. Flashes of Emerson’s own ideologies appear, with transcendentalism’s views on nature and human dignity making their presence felt. The second stanza opens with a proclamation that “It is not gold”, with it being the nation’s strength. The significance of gold can be debated here. On the surface, gold represent luxury, the ultimate status symbol. If status is in consideration, gold could be a reference to the olden day monarchies where Kings reigned supreme, enjoyed lavish lifestyles and unquestionable authority. In such a context, this is a blatant criticism of the social structure that glorified and shone the spotlight on a few, while the majority of the population remained hidden form view. The line mentioned “kingdoms grand” and this supports the theory that this stanza could quite possible be a critique of the ancient system of highly undistributed development fuelled by the monarchy. Another way to look at gold could be material wealth and the accumulation of possession. Material progress: the building of higher and more opulent structures and a more advanced consumer culture reflect development on a superficial level. They may seem shiny, golden and perfect, but all it takes is a “battle shock” for this carefully constructed aura of grandeur to shatter. The penultimate line to the stanza speaks of the shafts of such kingdoms decked out in guild having their shafts laid on “sinking sand” as opposed to “abiding rock”. The difference in the qualities of these materials drives across a very powerful, multidimensional point. Sand cannot hold any solid structure of worth, as its own nature is neither smooth nor stable, and the possibility of the structure sinking into and being enveloped by the sand, leaving it in a state of nothingness is rather high. Rock, on the other hand, is dependable and tough to weather regardless of the conditions it faces. The poet uses the term “abiding” to reflect this quality. In short, “gold” in all its flashy, high status glory is a mere sham when it comes to true greatness, because the very foundations upon which it seeks to grow development from, are not solid. The first shade of transcendentalism comes through here, with nature being used as a reference point for a solid foundation. Emerson believed that Man’s relationship with nature was of critical importance; his book “Nature” stands testament to this. The dependence on nature for a foundation conveys that ultimately, our foundation for a successful system must be of an organic origin, and not through the material conditions we create. Here, the poet begins to embed a hidden commentary which is linked to national consciousness. He begins to tell the common man that all the factors which he believes to be linked to greatness of a nation, are actually mere shams. With this, he instills a sense of hope in them that the greatness of a nation can be defined by them, and not factors beyond their control. In this particular stanza, some of the biggest conceptions of national greatness: material wealth and monarchial power, are smashed.
The third stanza’s element of focus is “the sword.” The sword as a symbol is a rather obvious one, it depicts violence and bloodshed, and power seized through these means. The phrase “red dust” holds important significance here, and is arguably the backbone of the whole stanza. The poet describes how blood has turned stones to rust, and “glory to decay.” The stones referred to could be the stones upon which the building called the nation was built. As the stones stained with blood rust over the ages, the red dust begins to gather. The red of the blood in the dust is the only sign that the empire ever existed. The term “dust” is powerful. Dust is irrelevant, an irritant and brushed away in a hurry. It gathers on old objects that are no longer cared for or worth anything. There could again be a reference to nature here. All the violence which people inflict upon each other, all the meticulous planning and strategy to win battle after battle, has no use. The stanza does not refer to a mere kingdom, but an Empire, which means its rulers clearly had considerable success with their tyrannical approach, and were able to conquer a lot of land by shedding more and more blood with every fight. But, in the end, their empire “passed away” and it was defeated in the battle of life itself. All that remained in the end were traces of the blood in the dust that had gathered on the empire long gone. The false glory which we waste our time trying to attain has no usage, because empires eventually turn into mere dust. The selection of dust to represent that something as inconsequential to dust during the conception and formation of an empire can be the one thing which conquers what is remaining of it. Dust, is a natural element, so the message here is that nature will eventually take back whatever is claimed by violent means, and nothing can be done to stop this. The poet continues the underlying commentary of telling the larger population what does not make an empire great while, till now, he is wordlessly telling them that they can. A great number of empires have been formed by violence over history. There is not one of them which has lasted till date. The ancient ones, such as the Mongol Empire and even rising modern ones, always had their expiry date all set. By giving the people food for thought by making them understand that even if they are subjected to violence and atrocities by a tyrant of a leader, he is grossly misguided and will ultimately fall. The second seed of doubt with the traditional notion of greatness is planted in the minds of the readers.
Stanza four is the last one in the trio that explains what cannot make a nation great. The poet chooses not to deal with tangible things such as gold or a tangible symbol which has devastating effects in its usage such as the sword, but chooses something intangible. Ironically, the intangible item selected may seem rather small and irrelevant when compared to gold and swashbucklers with swords, but upon closer examination, it is the ideas in the mind which do not physically express themselves but are the root cause for every other ill deed. These ideas poison the mind, and tell it that in order to be great as a nation, the only way to do is to progress materialistically and kill all its enemies. The idea selected here, is pride. Pride is the “bright crown” which appeals to nations so great and “sweet”; but ultimately, God will strike down on the luster of the crown of pride, and it will lie “In ashes at his feet.” This stanza delivers a huge blow to what populations across the globe have been told for centuries to have. Those in power hide behind the veil of pride when telling their subjects to fight wars, and exploit nature for resources. Pride is a powerful drug, and when one convinces a group of people that having a nation they are proud to a part of is the single most important thing, you have yourself a generation of addicts. Pride has been referred to as a Crown for a couple of reasons, both unrelated. Firstly, the bright crown which has seemed so appealing to nations could literally be a Crown, and represent the monarchy. Monarchies were built on the foundation of convincing people that having a King or a Queen to represent them would ensure that a nation which they were proud to belong to was built. This journey to building a nation that everyone is proud of could be as violent or exploitative as possible, but in the name of preserving or building one’s pride, all was forgiven. Secondly, the crown could mean that this particular virtue of pride takes precedence over both gold and the sword. That this truly is the crowning glory of what does not make a nation great. Ultimately, God does strike down, and the empire built on pride assumes its place at God’s feet as humbled ashes. The reference to God here is again a transcendentalist one, as they believed God was the superior power, and fostering a good relationship with God was crucial. The poet here tells people that if they are victims of the pride trap, if not nature, God himself will ensure that these empires fall. This also serves as a warning to them to not use pride as a guiding light when considering actions that will make them great.
The last two stanzas finally reveal what it is that makes a nation great. As he begun the very first stanza, he begins the penultimate one saying “Not gold” but rather, it is “only men” who can make a people or a nation great and strong. The values which are emphasized are truth, honor and standing fast to “suffer long” in the name of these values. The last stanza further details the nature of the men who make a nation great. The are brave and hardworking, even “while others sleep” and “dare while others fly.” According to Emerson, the foundations of a strong nation can only be built by these people, as they will build “pillars deep” and take the nation to greater heights, even as far as “the sky.”
The metaphor of a building comes up again, with reference to pillars in the last stanza. The men who Emerson refers are solid, well rounded and hardworking people. The crux of the poem is actually revealed in his last stanzas. One also sees a culmination of the narrative he has been building up over the second, third and fourth stanzas where he discusses what cannot make a nation great. In those stanzas, the idea that money or wealth, violence and pride, all three being ingredients to a certain extent in our mental picture of a great nation, was broken. Ironically, all these are factors which man has very little control over. The last two stanzas however, inject the poem with a dose of optimism, and assures people that the only ingredient required to create a strong nation is strong people. Every human being is faced with a choice as to what kind of person they wish to mold themselves into, and if they mold themselves into the hardworking, honest and strong men that Emerson refers to, they can become a vital cog in the wheel spinning towards national greatness. These are factors people can actively control, and not only are these controllable factors, they are motivating ones too. Building a strong and great nation is excellent incentive for even the most demotivated of men to step up and make something of himself.
A national consciousness can only become a universal one if there are unfalteringly strong ideas which are shared among those who hold it. Emerson, through “A Nation’s Strength” facilitates the development of such an idea, through the notion of a great nation. By dismissing wealth, violence and pride, factors which divide people’s opinions greatly, and providing the image of a recipe for greatness which requires only the relentless human sprit, he is not only uniting the consciousness of a nation, but also paving the way for tangible development. A Nation’s Strength is a powerful example of how the poetic voice can make its way into, unite and even work for the betterment of the national consciousness.
Illusion and Reality in Emerson’s Experience
In Experience, Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses the dichotomy of illusion and an absolute realm. Through the exercise of skepticism, Emerson establishes an uncertain knowledge of the phenomenal realm of reality; neither the intellect nor emotion can grasp the meaning of the events occurring in the outside world. Similarly, absolute truth remains obscured from Emerson’s perception. Nevertheless, he remains certain of its presence, and responds to the threat of illusion with spontaneous appeals to higher knowledge. Although waking up, so to speak, proves impossible from Emerson’s current point of perception, Emerson maintains faith in the presence of a holistic reality. His response to a valueless external world proves to be, throughout the piece, an appeal to integrate with a “creative power”, or higher realm. (281) Therefore, Emerson ultimately advocates for the abandonment of illusion in favor of experience.
While Emerson identifies “illusion” as a separate “lord of life” in his opening poem, his essay implies that all perceptual subjective forms of knowledge are fundamentally illusory.(269) The lords of life — Illusion, Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, and Subjectiveness — distort our experience, disabling our connection with the absolute. Our disconnection from the absolute accounts for our general disorientation:“Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.”, Emerson writes. (271) This is among the first of Emerson’s many laments regarding man’s departure from Nature, a “mid-world” he describes as an intersection between “sensation and intellect”, or power and form. While Emerson frequently rejects that a complete and lasting experience with the absolute is possible, he suggests that specific forms of living will lead to our encounter with a deeper cause. Therefore, Emerson’s primary concern throughout the essay is the movement away from perceptual knowledge and into experience. Over the course of the paper, he recognizes the overwhelming quality of worldly illusions and, using the model of a mid-world, or intersection between spirit and form, attempts to find respite from confusion.
The essay’s opening metaphor introduces the dichotomy of illusion and truth. Emerson compares perception to a lingering sleep: “Sleep lingers about our lifetime about our eyes; as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glimmer. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception.” (270, 271) Through the metaphor of a shadow cast within a fir-tree, Emerson describes the nature of illusion: darkness, or shadow, obscures the unalterable truth of daylight. Regardless of our obstructed vision, Emerson implies, daytime continues on. Reality is real while illusion remains illusory, regardless of our perceptual defects. Furthermore, Emerson’s comparison of illusion to shadow suggests that misperception is a natural consequence of human existence. His lamentation in the following paragraph regarding our obsession with routine emphasizes the inescapable quality of the illusory realm.Throughout his piece, Emerson emphasizes the inescapable quality of perception, for example, when describing life as a series of illusion we travel between.
In response to his assertion that perception distorts our vision of the world, Emerson attempts to identify the cause of our depravity: “Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to us that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation?” (271) Due to a lack of spirit, or “fire”, the experiencer is overwhelmed by worldly forms. Furthermore, this quote explicates that spirit stands apart from “health and reason”, or bodily states and the intellect. Throughout his essay, Emerson refers to the spiritual realm as an antidote to illusion. Emerson’s description of spirit as an “affirmative principle” alludes to the partiality, or individuality, of illusion, a recurrent unsolvable problem reiterated throughout Experience. Additionally, the word “affirmative” implies certainty; through contact with the spirit, confidence in the ultimate nature of reality can be obtained.
Emerson’s personal response to grief — an attractive mode of illusion whose “spikes and edges” offer a false sense of certainty — illustrates his faith in a greater, albeit imperceptible, truth. While Emerson’s attitude towards his son may be read as a skepticism against life, one may also interpret his refusal to indulge grief as an affirmation of faith: “Grief, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers.”, Emerson states. (271) Although Emerson feels extraordinary pain, he commits to arriving nearer to truth rather than indulging his immediate impulse. Although he desires to grieve, he chooses not to: “I grieve that grief can teach [me] nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.” (284) Grief, therefore, fails to offer genuine relief from pain. The rejection of grief as a subjective, non-ultimate reality, however difficult, promises to lead Emerson away from his isolated perception and closer to truth. Therefore, Emerson demonstrates his faith in an undistorted reality; illusion, no matter how appealing, proves ultimately unreal.
Similarly, Emerson invalidates the measurement of temperament because such study overlooks the reality of the soul. Emerson argues that sensory or material signs, although indicative of an object’s appearance, fail to describe the fundamental Beingness of the object they belong to. While discussing the outlook of physicians and scientists identifying personality, Emerson writes: “They esteem each man the victim of another, who winds him round his finger by knowing the law of his being, and by such cheap sign boards as the color of his beard, or the slope of his occiput, reads the inventory of his fortunes and character. The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness.” (272) Because descriptions of temperament claim that a person can be wholly known through limiting characteristics, such as character and behavior, Emerson rejects the scientific study of persona. When conclusions are proven accurate, Emerson “distrusts the facts”(284). While the intellect might be capable of describing visible personality, Emerson rejects the such indications as invalid.
Temperament proves inherently illusory and inescapable. He describes it as a “uniform tune which the revolving barrel of the music box must play.” (272) However, his statement that temperament “prevails over everything of time, place, and condition” does not erase his belief in an authentic, or non-material self which cannot be affected by the realm of illusion. (272) However, Emerson contradicts his earlier claim that temperament cannot be escaped, when he suggests that virtue sublimates the presence of temperament: “when virtue is in presence, all subordinate powers sleep.” (272) Again, Emerson suggests illusion cannot be escaped, then responds with an appeal to a higher truth. Later in the paragraph, Emerson writes: “Into every intelligence there is a door which is never closed, through which the creator passes. The intellect, seeker of absolute truth, or the heart, lover of absolute good, intervenes for our succor, and at one whisper of these higher powers, we awake from ineffectual struggles with this nightmare. We hurl it into its own hell, and cannot again contract ourselves to so base a state.” (273) In other words, upon becoming aware of a superior creative power, we hurl our former, analysis-based understandings into hell. From an absolute perspective, all indications of illusion, regardless of their particular form, are wholly unimportant.
Theoretical thought, or rationalization, proves as problematic as mood and temperament; without experience, theory keeps the experiencer within the subjective realm. While describing the futility of unsupplemented intellectual ideas, Emerson states: “Intellectual tasting of life will not supersede muscular activity. If a man should consider the nicety of the passage of a piece of bread down his throat, he would starve.”… “Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy.” (275) This statement ties in with his claim that “life is not dialectics”. (274) Since over-engagement with theory distracts the experiencer from sensory life, Emerson rejects it as valueless. Furthermore, Emerson suggests that theorizing without practical application may potentially guide the thinker towards all conclusions. Therefore, Emerson suggests, the intellect cannot evaluate the superiority of one belief over another. “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (286) In the same way that reality is “absolute” in Emersonian terms, illusion possesses an all-pervasive quality as well; all objections are of the same fundamental quality, in that they are not ultimately true. Opinions of the intellect, as Emerson explicates later in the paper, ultimately suggest nothing. Through honest analysis of thought’s limitations, Emerson once again redirects his reader to the realm of experience.
The intellect’s primary failure, Emerson clarifies, is its failure to analyze. This is expressed most clearly in the essay’s opening. While we as experiencers can know what happens, we cannot know why it is important to us. In the essay’s opening paragraph, Emerson discusses the general human failure to assess progress on any given day, stating: “We do not know today whether we are busy or idle.”(270) The intellect cannot identify or determine the quality of its own experience. Therefore, “critical analysis” should be abandoned; instead, we should attempt to experience moments as they occur. (270) While describing our tendency to compare ourselves to one another, Emerson expresses frustration with the human tendency to place faith in one’s perception: “Our life looks trivial to us, and we shun to record it. Men seem to have learned of the horizon the art of perpetual retreating and reference.”(270) Because of our mis-colored perception, we fail to look the present in the eye; however, ironically, genuine perception only proves possible in the present. Furthermore, Emerson’s horizon metaphor suggests that men have ironically mis-learned from Nature. While Nature would otherwise lead us closer to truth, our misinterpretation of the sunrise pulls us farther into the dream. The solution to opinion, which culminates into a kind of lasting distraction from ourselves, exists in the present moment. “How many individuals can we count in society? how many actions? how many opinions? So much of our time is preparation, so much routine, and so much retrospect, that the pith of each man’s genius contracts itself to a very few hours.”(270) Through the abandonment of opinion, or rejection of intellectual illusion, genuine insight from an inspired realm may be gathered.
Emerson’s rejection of analysis does not necessarily contradict his claim that the intellect reveals absolute truth. In Emerson’s view, the intellect can be used to propagate illusion or to perceive absolute truth. Later, Emerson states that the intellect proves morally sound because it stands beyond value judgments. “Sin seen from the thought, is a diminution or less: seen from the conscience or will, it is pravity or bad. The intellect names it shade, absence of light, and no essence. The conscience must feel it as essence, essential evil. This it is not: it has an objective existence, but no subjective” (281) When used for objective perception, the intellect assists rather than detracts from experience.
Although Emerson rejects the validity of illusion, he returns to considerable skepticism about one’s ability to entirely remove these “colored and distorted lenses”. (281) Regarding perception, Emerson writes: “We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects.”(281) While accepting the limitations of illusion, however, Emerson makes multiple attempts to navigate past fixed perception and into experience: the avoidance of stasis, described by the stars in the sky, the abandonment of moral judgment, and engagement with the present moment are all methods of integrating into a deeper reality which Emerson claims offer revelation. Ultimately, Emerson describes the universe as “the bride of the soul”, which can either “sleep or wake” the “deity which sleeps forever in every soul.” (281) Furthermore, Emerson affirms that no “force of the intellect” can attribute the object, or power, which allows this subject to sleep or wake. While the intellect may assist in the revelation of truth, “forces of the intellect” cannot replace spiritual power.
Emerson’s two closing paragraphs reaffirm the complementary dynamic between illusion and experience. While Emerson admits the limitations of knowledge, stating that he is “very content with knowing, if only [he] could know”, he prompts his reader to pursue “sanity and revelation”, or the “transformation of genius into practical power.”(284, 285) Although these statements appear contradictory, they accord with the concepts presented earlier in the essay. Knowledge, which stands beyond the realm of illusion, proves inaccessible; experience, existing in a momentary mid-world, enables the expression of the unknowable absolute. The final line of Emerson’s essay suggests, therefore, that although we cannot grasp knowledge intellectually, we can express our connection with an absolute universal law. While the absolute cannot be understood, it can be experienced; the absolute, or “genius”, achieves expression without intellectual understanding.
In the final paragraph of his essay, Emerson distinguishes thought from knowledge. While thought, although unknowable through empirical methods, remains inaccessible to Emerson, he remains certain of its existence. “I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms, is not the world I think. One day, I shall know the value and law of this discrepance. But I have found that not much was gained by manipular attempts to realize the world of thought,” Emerson writes. (284) The first sentence may be interpreted in two ways; first, that the world Emerson sees is not what it appears to be; second, that Emerson’s inner world, or “world of thought”, is a separate imaginative sphere which stands apart from worldly forms. Through his use of a dual meaning, Emerson points out his reader’s own inability to perceive the meaning of reality. However, the remainder of his statement seems to affirm that he intends the latter interpretation: a separate imaginative world, distinct from the illusory outer forms, remains in Emerson’s mind, although the entirety of its depths remain inaccessible to him.
The redeeming aspect of Emerson’s closing paragraph is its reliance on faith. While Emerson does display a sudden optimism which overlooks his earlier claims of worldly enslavement, he makes no statements that fundamentally contradict his earlier philosophy. Because Emerson writes from the realm of illusion, as he admits in the paragraph’s opening sentence, he himself cannot know whether or not his perception is correct. Therefore, he must operate on faith, given his knowledge of reality and illusion as he understands it. He can trust, with the same certainty, that knowledge will be revealed to him; he prompts his reader — or, perhaps, himself — to stand up again, and to look forward to the transformation of the world. Emerson’s hopeful conclusion, therefore, transcends the suppositions of the intellect. While his previous reasoning suggested that illusion cannot be overcome, he places his faith in the emergence of a reality which cannot yet be known.