Ralph Waldo Emerson’s role as an influential writer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Role in Transcendentalism
Whenever one talks about the emergence and influence of American Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his friend, Henry David Thoreau is sure to be discussed. Emerson made waves for his speech on cultural independence, and later on self-reliance, where he proudly declared that to be great was to be misunderstood. He is, in fact, one of the most influential figures of the movement, and inspired numerous writers and authors to embark on the same journey as his. None, however, has managed to come close.
However, to fully understand Transcendentalism is to delve into its roots. In the simplest of words, it is defined as a cultural, literary, philosophical and political movement, which caught fire in the early nineteenth century. While mainly centred on Emerson himself, the movement, it is also known for the works of Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Amos Alcott and others as well.
The idea behind transcendentalism was simple: they were critics of the modern society, scorning upon the fact that the people were too lazy and unwilling to leave the shadows of conformity and step into the world of exploration and imagination. Authenticity and novelty, in fact, were two of the key principles of the movement. They encourage people to stop depending on others and start looking inside themselves in turn. Emerson, in fact, persuaded each person to find his or her ‘unique’ connection with the universe, which would be novel to the person only CITATION Eme90 p 3 l 16393 (Emerson 3). Thus, originality was the sole friend of the movement. It was, in fact, prized by the followers of the movement, who thought that man’s teachings did not come from senses alone, but through his psychological and spiritual experiences. They formed the basis of what we now call conscience, or intuition, and allowed us to connect to a higher realm of greater knowledge. Once a person transcended, they left behind all their troubles and worldly concerns and became one with the universe.
Moreover, transcendentalism celebrated the existence of each soul and did not discriminate on the basis of its sin or saves. A person could once establish a higher connection and live out his life regardless of what his actions were. It believed that all men were created equal, and none was given special rights over any other.
Emerson and transcendentalism:
In 1842, Emerson gave a lecture, titled ‘the Transcendentalist’, in which he displayed an understanding of the principles of existence, and said the ideas in the new wave may not necessarily have been new, but just the parts of a greater philosophy, a tradition called idealism CITATION Eme90 p 101-2 l 16393 (Emerson 101-2).
He said that transcendentalism did not necessarily mean being beyond the scope of human life altogether, but it was a tool to make new experiences. He thought of the human mind as being capable of forming experiences, which contributed to learning, and thus helped counter the feeling of doubt, or the idea of scepticism CITATION Eme39 p 413 l 16393 (Emerson, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson 413).
‘Self-Reliance’ is an essay by Emerson, which supports his philosophy and support for transcendentalism. It is a direct representation of his thinking that the individual is not separate from the world, and that the world works in direct tandem with God. Thus, all things in the world are reflected in each other and help each other function. Thus, by the extension of this logic, it can also be said that the individual is one with God as well since he or she is one with the world.
Self-Reliance is a direct representation of the W. E. Channing’s philosophy of self-development through moral and intellectual growth. Emerson, through this essay, supports individualism and pays a lot of emphasis on developing oneself intellectually and morally CITATION Rob99 p 15-16 l 16393 (Robinson 15-16) CITATION Bel08 p 683 l 16393 (Belasco and Johnson 683).
He says that a man should learn to ‘detect and watch that gleam of light that strikes him from within’, meaning that one should observe their surroundings carefully, and watch out for any inspiration that strikes one and inspires one to work. Rather than running to the external gods and common faith, a man should look within oneself for any guidance that he needs. Being one with the world, and the world being one with God, man will find God and his guidance nowhere but within him CITATION Eme08 p 684 l 16393 (Emerson, Self-Reliance 684).
Additionally, the essay resonates with Emerson’s support for transcendentalism. The acceptance of self is also an important part of the essay. Emerson, in fact, pays a lot of emphases to discover oneself, and letting it grow with the moral and intellectual experiences that we have in any point of day. In fact, relying on oneself, and accepting its existence and power and one of the ways to achieve the great oneness that one hopes to in his life. In very clear words, Emerson says, ‘Accept the place the Providence has found for you.’ CITATION Eme08 p 685 l 16393 (Emerson, Self-Reliance 685)
In the essay, Emerson also discourages people from engaging in self-doubt. He says that one should have a child-like mind, which is free from all doubt, be it for the world or the self. A child’s trust in the world is absolute, and his view of the world is pure. A child learns from his experiences: he learns not to climb the tree too high for he will fall. He learns that there is poverty in the world when he shares. Thus, as the child grows, he grows his mental and physical faculties with his experiences CITATION Rob89 p 226 l 16393 (D. M. Robinson 226).
Thus, Emerson describes a state of absolute self-awareness, and in extension of it, one of absolute acceptance, which was an important part of the transcendentalist movement. However, to accept oneself wholly, one would have to be free from outside influences that could threaten one’s discovery of the self. Emerson also addresses this in his essay, saying that non-conformity was an important part of accepting oneself CITATION Rob89 p 226 l 16393 (D. M. Robinson 226).
He describes the society around him as a joint-stock company, where people are willing to sacrifice their freedom and the essence of their culture for security. A true person will accept his self only when he becomes free of the mental shackles of the society. Non-conformity, says Emerson, is the essence of avoiding society and the security that it provides. It is the aversion of conformity. A person on the path to accepting and discover his true self will not let himself be persuaded by the rules and regulations of the society CITATION Eme08 p 686 l 16393 (Emerson, Self-Reliance 686).
Emerson and Abolitionism
One of the most noteworthy things about the essay is how Emerson’s idea of self-discovery and reliance are in direct tandem with the idea of a democratic society. In fact, George Kateb has described Emerson’s type of self-reliance as a doctrine that will not exist if not in a democratic society CITATION Kat02 p 178 l 16393 (Kateb 178).
The realization comes here: what Emerson describes is a society of free, self-sufficient, and equal individuals. This system comes into place when someone from a great city like Boston or New York finds himself lost at the absence of a secure, well-paying position, but a man from a small town, like New Hampshire or Vermont tries his hands at various jobs, and throughout the years, uses his confidence to excel in all his endeavours, thus ‘falling on his feet’ CITATION Eme08 p 67 l 16393 (Emerson, Self-Reliance 67).
The essay’s idea has a special significance when seen in relation to the then situations of life and governance in the United States. Scholars and researchers have, however, described Emerson as being detached from politics, and having no reaction whatsoever to abolitionism. Granted, though he was not a part of the abolitionist movement, he was openly critical of slavery and its repercussions of the American society, saying that it went against his ideology of freeing not only the imprisoned mind but also the imprisoned body.
Thus, at the time of writing Self-reliance, one’s status and freedom in America depended on the colour of the skin. For any man who was working and toiling away in the fields of a white man, subject to cruelty, hardships and minimal wage, America of the time was not a democracy. It was a tyrannical regime that discriminated among people on the basis of the colour of their skin.
The then ideology of the society thus obliterated what was being taught in the essay. How would a man become self-reliant if outside forces forced him to go the other way? How would one believe himself to be one with the world and with God, when what constituted his world was cruel and unfair to him because of something he was born with? Thus, slavery, as a concept was in direct opposition to self-reliance, which not only Emerson but the entire Transcendentalist movement were preachers of.
In the years that led to the Civil War, Emerson was increasingly occupied with the idea of how one could abolish slavery. Moreover, he was also concerned with how to do it without compromising the intellectual integrity and self-reliance of either side. Thus, despite being a supporter of the abolitionist movement, Emerson set himself in the class of true transcendentalists, who, while they supported ideas of reliance and independence, removed themselves from outside factors and influence.
Emerson’s support for the abolitionist movement also led to a change in thinking, both of him and because of him. Earlier, he was thought of as an author detached from practical and commercial politics, and even indifferent to the movement of abolitionism. However, despite being very public in his support of abolishing slavery, and preaching the existence of self-reliance, there exist no records of any essays and speeches of such nature.
Another aspect which puts Emerson in the limelight is the triangle of slavery, abolitionism, and self-reliance. The idea of keeping someone as slave is what challenges the very institution of self-reliance, which Emerson was acutely aware of and rallied against. However, he also knew that it would not be possible to act against such a rampant evil, and a commonly accepted societal evil, without, as mentioned, compromising the self-reliance of either community.
According to Read, the original version of self-reliance was written assuming the existence of free-willed men, who were to answer to no one, and were slaves to no one. However, with the increasing tension in the air due to the fire of abolishing slavery, coupled with Emerson’s views, he later applied the concept of his essay and various sub-aspects of it to some anti-slavery related efforts. Thus, he spoke on some issues, including the Fugitive Slave Law, the spread of slavery to new federal districts, the looming Civil War, and the prospects of the blacks in America after the abolition of slavery CITATION Rea09 p 3-4 l 16393 (Read 3-4).
The Fugitive Slave Law, especially, helped Emerson to spread his ideas of self-reliance by opposing the conditions of the clause in the constitution. He opposed the government’s view of calling the law ‘sacred’, thus citing an outside religious influence, and emphasizing on the futility of it, since religious texts did not hold any significance over the self-reliant mind CITATION Rea09 p 4 l 16393 (Read 4).
He also opposed the very idea and actions of the Fugitive Slave Law, which asked for people in Free states to cooperate in the capture of black fugitives. What had once been an idea and a rampant system of how society functioned had now become law. It directly compromised the freedom and integrity of a class, which was what Emerson spoke against CITATION Rea09 p 4 l 16393 (Read 4).
Emerson and his Personal Experiences
Being an advocate of transcendentalism, Emerson’s writings show a deep and strong connection with his personal experiences. In fact, his depiction of the human mind is so real and lively that few have come close to even trying to emulate him.
Even when speaking against slavery, and in support of the abolitionist movement, Emerson depicted a deep sense of understanding and an impeccable capability for logic, which he used to cultivate in people support for his idea of self-reliance. However, here is also where Emerson becomes a bone of contention for scholars. Since his writings were so influenced by his personal thinking and not by the outside forces that drove people of the time, they sometimes showed detachment from political and social issues. Moreover, Emerson also often went back on what he said at any given time. That is why, despite being a very public supporter of abolishing slavery, there exist very few records that deal with the topic and less with relating it to self-reliance.
An example would be to compare Emerson’s previous writings on abolishing slavery, and his essay ‘Fate’ from his book, ‘The Conduct of Life’. Where Emerson had earlier criticized the idea as being directly violating the policy of the individual growing mentally, intellectually, and morally to become one with the world; in Fate, he notes that it is not possible for someone to achieve absolute freedom, or any freedom, in a strict world without considering the boundaries and limitations imposed on him. Thus, where the concept of self-reliance talked about leaving behind all outside influences, and concentrating only on growing one’s inner self by expanding, here Emerson considers very openly the limits, that is, the outside factors, and their necessity in shaping the inner mind CITATION Eme04 l 16393 (Emerson, The Conduct of Life) CITATION Rea09 p 6 l 16393 (Read 6).
Scholars also think that Emerson produced a revised version of Self-reliance, or at least revised the concept after the Civil War, and made it more suitable to fit the political ideologies of the time. This is because more and more of his writing show an increased political inclination as time passes CITATION Rea09 p 6 l 16393 (Read 6). Now, whether that is due to a break in his character and from the movement, or due to his personal inclination that influenced his writings heavily is a question that many have debated. He does, however, insist that a self-reliant individual struggles against the spirit of his time, something he had left out in the earlier versions of his essay.
This could also, however, be in direct relation with the idea of non-conformity. In the process of accepting one-self, one would have to go against the idea and values of one’s immediate society. Thus, one would encounter some resistance, thus struggling against the ‘spirit of the times’. Only those with absolute convictions and an unshakeable belief in their true self would emerge victorious CITATION Rea09 p 6 l 16393 (Read 6).
When looked at in that sense, Emerson may be considered as an amalgam of clashing opinions. Where on one hand he is considered to be the face of transcendental movement, on the other, he goes back on much of what he says. Thus, it might also suggest that he was not the perfect man that the world thinks of him as. He, too, was grappling against the spirit of the times. However, his conviction and ideas are what have become his legacy, and they will live on forever.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Belasco, Susan and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume One: Beginnings to 1865. Boston: St. Martin’s , 2008. Print.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. ” The Conduct of Life.” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1904. Print.
—. Ralph Waldo Emerson (The Oxforf Authors). Ed. Richard Poirier. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume One: Beginnings to 1865. Boston: St. Martin’s , 2008. 684-701. Print.
—. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1939. Print.
Kateb, George. Emerson and Self-Reliance. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Print.
Read, James H. “The Limits of Self-Reliance: Emerson, Slavery, and Abolition.” American Political Science Association. Toronto : American Political Science Association, 2009. 1-47. Print.
Robinson, David M. “Transcendentalism and its Times.” The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 13-29. Print.
Robinson, David M. “Grace and Works: Emerson’s Essays in Theological Perspective.” American Unitarianism: 1805-1865 (1989): 121-142. Print.