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.
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