Emerson

In Emerson's Self-Reliance we see the crowning work of the transcendentalist movement. In this piece Emerson explains his belief in the innate divinity of man and defines our "Self-Reliance" as the broad identity in which we personally participate. Emerson challenges his readers to not conform to traditional practices in a variety of realms. However, he punctuates just four aspects of these challenges to tradition and they are: religion, education, art, and society. I found these passages to be the best representatives of Emerson's ideology due to their poignancy and numbered paragraphs. He talks of these challenges to man as revolutions due to a greater self-reliance. The profoundness of thought in this piece is surprising to me given the historical period Emerson was bathed in. His thoughts on genius are the means of conveyance for his ideal about nonconformity and originality. Also, the personal and emotional connection with which Emerson uses to convey original thoughts and ideas is apparent in his evaluation of great minds of the past.
The first passage regards the challenge to revolutionize religion; and more importantly, to discount the practice of prayer and creeds. He says, "Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious" (Robinson 102). He is basically announcing his contempt for the pious nature man has come to have and his belief that we should not pray for things we can achieve ourselves. He goes on to say, "But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness" (Robinson 102). He is equating prayer with begging to God and believes it is not needed when you become one with God and therefore can see prayer in all productive actions. Prayer for Emerson creates a distinction between himself and God and does not allow for the self to become one with nature and consciousness. He also critiques man's practice of creeds and he believes the practice of one negates all others and vice versa. He says creeds are "a disease of the intellect" (Robinson 103). Whereas prayer is a disease of the will, creeds perform a habitual complacency in the life of man which allows only for the teachings of one particular idea. This is intellectual death for Emerson. To not only have to believe and participate in something prescribed for you by someone else, but having to conform to a prescribed lifestyle and way of thought destroys the individuality and originality man possesses.
In the second numerated passage Emerson challenges the realm of Classical Education and the way wealthy New Englanders regard such old world education as being the best. For years Americans had been sending their prestigious young men overseas to be immersed in the classic culture and regionalism Europe offers. This is objected to by Emerson for the reason that everything you need is inside you. History is your history; culture is your culture; art is your art; beauty is your beauty, etc. He says, "The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home. . ." (Robinson 104). He is emphasizing the idea that all which makes up a man, all which defines him, is in his immediate and homebound presence and therefore resides within him wherever he goes. He believes in the benefit of travel "for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence. . ." (Robinson 104), but as for one who is traveling to acquire or attain that which he does not have, Emerson says we travel away from ourselves and in our search we carry only "ruins to ruins" (Robinson 104). The end of this passage was especially interesting to me. He talks of his travel from home envisioning beauty and losing his sadness. However, when he physically arrives "there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from" (Robinson 105). In this state he is aware of himself as he knew him when he was home and this is the sad self. Sad because Emerson wished to be intoxicated by beauty and lose his sadness; sad because
his ability to do so resides in himself, he just needs to realize it.
The passage numbered three deals with Emerson's challenges to the world of art. He has the romantic notion of art as art for art's sake without sacrificing originality. The originality aspect must be harnessed according to Emerson because it is entirely your own and comes from within you. He says, "Insist on yourself; never imitate" (Robinson 105). For Emerson the imitation only grants the artist a half-possession of their work and therefore negates the work. He explicates this idea with the originality of great historical figures such as, Shakespeare, Bacon and Newton saying what master could have taught them? Their originality flowed from their own free-flowing thoughts and ideas just as our best thoughts and ideas come from inside us. His belief in the greatness of man shines through when he says, "There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand" (Robinson 106). As before, Emerson's assertion of our divinity and greatness as being omnipresent is the overall factor of our perfect ability to be original.
In the fourth passage Emerson critiques our beliefs in society and challenges the ideas of progression and advancement. For Emerson society is dynamic in nature with a constant ebb and flow of continuing changes. To exact this point Emerson says, "Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. . . For every thing that is given something is taken. Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts" (Robinson 106). He goes on to enumerate the idea of give and take with correlating aspects of a civilized and uncivilized man: "The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks for much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun"
(Robinson 106). This is Emerson's critique of civilization in that of all the skills which development and innovation have given us; they have replaced intuitive resourcefulness which serve the same purpose. For by the buildup of innovation and invention, Emerson says we have lost some of our societal energy and replaced it with habitual complacency which will hinder the development of our self. He equates society with a wave and asserts the idea of the wave moving on but the water, man, remains the same; only its movements have changed. As our history and culture evolve because of these changes society is affected not man. In turn we can assess the reciprocating value that man instigates these changes and effects society.
The most thought provoking quote in the piece comes towards the beginning where Emerson says, "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" (Robinson 92). Here he is explaining his disdain in the lack of effort to provide for the advancement of original ideas, theories, and thoughts. During Emerson's time much information and education was derived from indoctrinated practices by particular religious sects and therefore hindered great, original or individual thinking. He uses examples of great philosophers, astronomers, and scientists to prove his point that within the scope of society or history what is known is not valuable and not beneficial, and what is unknown is original, daring, valuable and great. The greatness resides inside of us and we must excavate it through constant reevaluation of our principles and virtues, without regarding foreign influences.
In conclusion, I believe Emerson's applicable challenges can be identified as his leading arguments when concerned with individual and personal revolution. His views on religion, education, art, and society are explicated through his gifted intuitional understanding and reason. By reasoning to the reader through vivid examples which are apparent and self-evident, he creates the proof for his understanding of reason's uses to question what we are perceived to know.
The personal connection to Emerson is clear in his engaging emotional remark in which we can simply recognize as his affection for the original, misunderstood, and individual contributions great minds of the past have made.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON
Self-Reliance

WORKS CITED

Robinson, David M. The Spiritual Emerson, Essential Writings. Ed. David M. Robinson. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.http://www.oppapers.com/essays/Emerson/46197

Emerson 7.1 of 10 on the basis of 4024 Review.