"History" and "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I think he looks like Abraham Lincoln
I'm sneaking in to the tail-end of Tea With Transcendentalists to share my thoughts on two of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, "History" and "Self-Reliance." "Self-Reliance" is a reread for me, my first introduction to Transcendentalism in the eleventh grade. "History" was recommended to me in different posts where I mentioned this event. I actually wanted to read all of the First Series of Emerson's essays, but finals being what they are, it just didn't happen.

"History" describes the "mind common to all individual men." Emerson describes how every man is part of one collective conscious, how every capability and action is nascent in every individual. According to Emerson, "of the works of this mind history is the record." Every act of history is present in every person. The reason we read the stories of history and relate to them is because they are actually a part of us. I loved this quote:
All that Shakespeare says of the king, yonder slip of a boy that reads in the corner feels to be true of himself. We sympathize in the great moments of history, in the great discoveries, the great resistances, the great  prosperities of men; -- because there law was enacted, the sea was searched, the land was found, or the blow was struck, for us, as we ourselves in that place would have done or applauded.
And also this:
The world exists for the education of each man. There is no age or state of society or mode of action in history to which there is not somewhat corresponding in his life.
I enjoyed reading about Emerson's philosophy of the collective human soul, and in some ways I agree with him. I think that we do thrill to the romantic stories of history, the empowering battles, moments both victorious or pathetic, because we all possess a common core of humanity. I think our humanity does gift us with something unique. However, I don't believe in it quite as literally as Emerson. I don't believe that, for example, the reason I enjoy reading Emerson's essays is because as Emerson was writing them, I myself was with him writing them too.

"Self-Reliance" in a way draws upon this idea of the collective conscious by reflecting it back to the individual -- because we all possess this collective consciousness, we all can depend on ourselves to be guided correctly. Because all laws proceed out of the collective conscious and we are a piece of that conscious, we are laws unto ourselves, and we need to seek approval and validation from ourselves, not from others. Emerson says:
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.
I suppose I am not a genius, because I don't think this is true. Maybe I don't read into things deeply enough, but I find that when I am true to myself, I often disagree completely with other people, especially in deeply important things like spirituality and morality. Maybe I am right and they aren't in tune with themselves? I'm being facetious, but I would imagine those same people think the same thing about me -- that I delude myself and that they are the ones who are correct in their "private heart."

I did like this quote a bit better:
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.
I agree with Emerson that in order to truly live our lives, we have to be comfortable with ourselves, doing what our conscience dictates to us. However, I am a little confused by how it ties in with Emerson's doctrine of believing the truth in one's private heart is equivalent to truth for all men, because he follows later in the essay by saying, "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist." A few pages down he says, "I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim." I respect the belief to follow one's heart, but I am not convinced that if we all were to do so, we would be acting from one purpose.

Other than this miff I have with Emerson believing so wholly in the collectiveness and yet the singularity of the mind, there is a lot of good in this essay -- too much to summarize in a few paltry paragraphs. I really love the way he argues for creativity and work, saying to not be self-conscious or feeble but to simply do what you know you must do with every ounce of power you have and to ignore the voices of derision around you.

One small section of the essay has always stood out to me in particular, and this is Emerson's rant on traveling. According to Emerson, traveling is a waste of time if you are trying to forget something that pains you or change yourself, because no matter where you go, you are still the same self. He says,
The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasional call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance that he goes, the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign and not like an interloper or a valet.
I like to get all mixed up in a new place, to completely submerge myself in the new experience and grow from it, so this idea of entering "like a sovereign," deigning to spend my time there, doesn't appeal to me. Emerson does make up for it a little bit by qualifying,
I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows.
Eh, I feel like often in traveling I have the opportunity to learn something greater than I know -- I think there is something to be said for transplanting oneself and observing life from a different angle. But I am willing to agree to disagree with Mr. Emerson. Although many of his philosophies do not agree with mine, I enjoy reading them and I'm looking forward to reading more of them.



  1. Oh, my! I'm going to enjoy Emerson!! I had time to read three of his essays and only write on one. I hoped to read a whole book of his essays, but I'll have to put that off until 2012. I'd rather read him slowly than try to rush it.

    Did he mean "bodily" traveling? From the little you quoted above, it sounds like he means that the soul must remain seated "at home" even while the body travels -- or, rather, that one should be at home within oneself.

    Of course, I'd have to read the essay myself to see if that's what he meant.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this, Lorren! I'm intrigued and want to read more. :-)

  2. I think you are right about the soul staying seated at home, but I also got the impression that he was saying your body shouldn't need to travel to learn new things. I love reading his essays -- I think you will enjoy the rest of them that you read!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...