an analysis of ralph waldo emersons essay self reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance is a great self-help source, the goal of which is to promote transcendentalism and simultaneously help the reader understand and follow transcendental beliefs. Self-Reliance serves for Emerson as a way to expresses his beliefs, feelings, attitudes, and arguments that defend his views on religion, education, art, and society described in the essay.  Advocating his argumentation, Emerson delivers a number of vivid examples and at the same time develops the proof for his understanding of reason’s uses to question what we are perceived to know. Concluding the essay Emerson asserts that greater self-reliance will result in a revolution. After, he links this theory to society and all of its aspects, including religion, education, and art.

In the first passage Emerson represents his revolutionary religious beliefs; and moreover aims to discount the practice of prayer and creeds.  Emerson writes, “Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious” (Robinson 102).  Through this phrase he is basically announcing his abhorrence for the religious nature man has come to have and his opinion that we should not pray for things we can attain on our own.  He goes on to say, “But prayer as a means to affect 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 traveler; 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.

Also, in the quote “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion”, one of the definitions of the word “world” is “human society.”  The word “opinion” means “a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter.”  By putting these words together, Emerson is implying that the “world’s opinion” is the general point of view accepted by most of society. However, each person also has his personal opinion which sometimes or quite frequently differs from the “world’s opinion”. Emerson also applies the word, “solitude” which is “the quality or state of being alone or remote from society.”  By also using the word “solitude” Emerson tries to contrast the majority (which is society), and the individual(personality).  What Emerson suggests is that if one can live in a world full of people who think a certain way because they were taught to believe that way, but still hold your own ground and follow what you believe, you are a great person.

As imperative as individualism was to Emerson, developing one’s soul was even more so.  The process in developing one’s soul was just as important.  He states, “But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future (Emerson 157).”  The word “heedless” means “carelessly” and by using the word “riches” Emerson means nature.  What he meant by using these words together was that men forget about the beauty in nature because we see it all too often to notice it.  Men are too wrapped up in their lives and thinking about the future that they overlook the splendor that nature has to offer.  He also states, “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today (Emerson 157).”  With this, Emerson is trying to convey the fact that God is present in nature and all its beauty.

What Emerson strove so hard to make others realize was that developing the soul was the key to unification with God.  He implied that God was all around and that all it took was a little time to settle down and realize nature in its glory.  He also suggested that separating oneself from society and its thoughts would do the individual good because then the mind could be cleared.  He states, “But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation (Emerson 159).”  The word “spiritual” literally means “concerned with religious values,” and the word “elevation” means “to improve morally, intellectually or culturally.”  By using these words together, Emerson connotes that separating oneself should deal with religious values, not just to get away from the world, and when one succeeds in doing so, they will develop a state of mind that is one with God.  Developing ones soul means letting God into your life and realizing that his presence isn’t only for the afterlife, but also for the present.

The reasons why Emerson, admires child’s youth is because they are so free spirited they conform to no one when someone tells them to stop throwing something they stop and when no one is looking they start throwing it again.  Children and youth in general live to break the rules they love doing things there no supposed to or expected to.  If kids always did what people told them to they would never get to discover how great trying new things out are.

When we are first born in to this world we hear voices that tell us to be an individual and that we should think for ourselves.  Unfortunately as time passes we age and that voice becomes fainter away and we think we have to fit in but truly all you really need to do to fit is to be yourself.  So if people think they should be wearing the latest trends of fashion they should try to wear their own style of clothing, and even though we cannot be completely non-conforming we should try to be our own person.

Emerson says “The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines,” paragraph seven. What Emerson is saying in this phrase is that good and bad are just names we should make judgments according to our constitutions or conscious and not what every what else believes to be right and wrong.  We need to think for ourselves we should make decisions with our heart because though you might not be right in the eyes of the beholder you are self- reliant about the decisions you make.  In society you are supposed to dress a certain way, act a certain way, and talk a certain way: if you ever want to get somewhere in life you must strive to be different and if not you will be the average Joe somebody, that why Emerson is

Even if people think you are crazy for how you judge and make decisions, it should not matter to you because people will always believe you are sick in the head if you are not conforming to what society expects.  In society you are supposed to dress a certain way, act a certain way, and talk a certain way: if you ever want to get somewhere in life you must strive to be different and if not you will be the average Joe somebody, that why Emerson is trying to stress the fact that you should try to distinguish yourselves in your life and not conform to other peoples actions.

Paragraphs 21 and 22 express an important part of Emerson’s philosophy. Emerson says, “The individual soul exists in the Over-soul, a supreme being or spirit which both transcends and is one with the individual soul.” When Emerson makes a reference to intuition he is telling us that intuitions is our instinct our thought process. Our intuition is made up form different ideas such as our essences, which are genius, virtue of life, and or primal instinct.  Intuition by definition means: “the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference” Webster dictionary.

In paragraph 21 and 22 Emerson gives hints to his self-believing in the over-soul when he says, “Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom, and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism”; in that statement he is saying the over-soul is staring us in the face when we look at other creatures in this world and that we very easily forget to se the things right in front of us. He says though his actions may be rash he still respects what is above and what is part of us, inside each and every soul is where the over-soul presides.

Some readers have interpreted Emerson’s doctrine as a means to act entirely as he pleases, accepting no restraints whatsoever.  However, paragraphs 28,30,31, and 32 prove that he is just saying that even though we must be self reliant and think for ourselves he does not want us to go against all logic he is saying rules are there to better serve us to keep balance and order even though some rules make no wince they are put their for a reason, just because we should not conform to everyone else’s beliefs does not mean we should not follow the rules in place in our age and time, he wants us to try different ways of think but he still wants us to follow what is moral and righteous.

            Emerson says that we should try work with our friends and family to try to better understand them that even though we might not always get along that they are our family and we need to love them and even if they do not accept you should strive to make the love and accept you for who and what you are. Emerson concludes that even though humans may not always see things strait they always have their moments of reason when they look out into the reason of absolute truth.

In paragraph 35 Emerson calls for “a revolution in all offices and relations to men.” What Emerson is saying is that we should change our view and religion and such; he is saying that revolution will occur everywhere including religion he is say that that if we are to change our view to non-conform with others views we must start with the basics such as we must change our ideology and how we think of the Over-soul and what he means to us because he is the most basic idea for humans and general our whole society is based on a type of religion we base our morals and rules around what religion juristic is correct and incorrect.

            I agree with what Emerson is saying about how we should change everything including our religion so in order to change our view I believe must change our ideology: that is where I stand on this statement made by Emerson. Even though religion be something that is supposed unchanged it must be changed if we are to be successful at being non-conforming.

            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 (Sloan).

Overall, Ralph Waldo claims that the true basis for self-reliance is connection between an individual and nature (which is also his inner voice) which is important for a that individuals intellectual, aesthetic, and moral health and development. As for society and individual’s relationship to it, Emerson believes that being an individual comes from trusting your inner voice and always being honest with yourself.  In addition, Emerson describes his view of what an individual is, and how the one becomes an individual in his opinion, by addressing all the various parts that consist of an individual. Besides, according to Emerson, one must follow what they believe is true for themselves and not listen to what other people think.  He writes, “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 perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Put another way, what Emerson suggests is that if one can live in a world full of people who think a certain way because they were taught to believe that way, but still hold your own ground and follow what you believe, you are a great person.

In the Self-Reliance Emerson said “I do not wish to expiate, but to live” (Emerson).  Emerson believes that the world only does what is good when they feel they have done something wrong (as if some way to right their wrong).  They become charitiable when a stage is set and put on a show. He refuses to be what other people want him to be, and encourages others to follow him.  Basically, people do not do deeds without there being some type of reward or personal pleasure in return, no matter how small or big it is.

            “You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it” (Emerson).  Emerson found it that every one is capable of making their own decisions.  No one should try to force another to do anything they do not want to do themselves.  People who make their own decisions and fail learn from their mistakes.  This way they have no one to blame, or thank, but themselves.

Emerson did not care for the opinions of the world, and clearly states that troughout

Self-Reliance.  “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think” (Emerson).  An individual should be able to do what ever they need to do without having to worry about what every one else thinks.  The world is self conscious.  If they would just follow Emersons three rules they would have no reason to be unsure of themselves.

Undoubtedly, Emerson had a huge impact on those who read his work. Emerson pushed the idea of unification with God through the soul and was for non-conformity and individualism.  He was very much concerned with the growth of the individual, whether it be in mind or through the soul.

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.  I agree that “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” However, in order to achieve the state where “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself”. To Emerson, the world could be a lot better if everyone would find the good in each other, make their own decisions, and respect each other.  If people do not learn these rule it will be difficult for them to find any means to life; let alone be happy in life.  Emerson has world a way to find there meaning in life, but it seems like no ones trying.

Works Cited

Ralph Waldo Emerson, David M. Robinson (Editor). The Spiritual Emerson: Essential Writings. Beacon Press. April 15, 2004.

Sloan, Gary. “Emerson’s Self-Reliance.” The Explicator 55, 1996.

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