Ralph Waldo Emerson Self- reliance (1841)



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Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Born May 25, 1803 Boston, MA - Died April 27, 1882 Concord, MA.
  • American essayist, philosopher, and leader of the Transcendentalist movement in the early 19th century.
  • In October 1817, at fourteen, Emerson went to Harvard College and was appointed the Freshman's President.
  • Tutored and taught during the winter vacation at his Uncle Ripley's school in Waltham, Massachusetts.
  • Over the next several years, Emerson made his living as a schoolmaster, then went to Harvard Divinity School.
  • Anonymously published his first essay, Nature, in September 1836.
  • August 31, 1837, Emerson delivered his now-famous Phi Beta Kappa address, "The American Scholar".
  • He was denounced as an atheist, and a poisoner of young men's minds for discounting Biblical miracles and proclaiming that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God.

Emerson on Slavery in 1844

  • His involvement with the antislavery movement grew as slavery escalated during the 1840s and early 1850s.
  • Emerson’s fears concerning its expansion grew, and he acquired a deep admiration for the abolitionist movement.
  • He delivered his first public antislavery address in 1844, a commemoration of the British emancipation of the slaves in the West Indies.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Young American

Main Points

  • 1. Railroad Iron is a magician’s rod, in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.
        • “But I have abstained too long from speaking of that which led me to this topic,- [the railroad’s] importance in creating an American sentiment.”
        • “..increased acquaintance it has given the American people..”
        • “..reduced England to a third of its size..”
        • “..in this country it has given a new celerity to time..”
        • “There is no American citizen who has not been stimulated to reflection by the facilities now in progress of construction for travel and transportation of goods in the United States.”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Young American

Main Points (cont.)

  • 2. The uprise and culmination of the new power of Commerce is of most significance to the American at this hour.
        • “From Washington, ..’the city of magnificent distances,’ through all its cities, states, and territories, it is a country of beginnings, of projects, of designs, and expectations. It has no past: all has an onward and prospective look.”
        • “We concoct eleemosynary systems, and it turns out that our charity increases pauperism. We inflate our paper currency, repair commerce with unlimited credit, and are presently visited with unlimited bankruptcy”.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Young American

Main Points (cont.)

  • “The History of commerce..is the record of this benficent tendency….Trade, a plant which grows wherever there is peace, as soon as there is peace, and as long as there is peace..”
  • “It is a new agent in the world, and one of great function; it is a very intellectual force.”
  • “Trade goes to make the governments insignificant, and to bring every kind of faculty of every individual that can in any manner serve any person, on sale… This is good and this the evil of trade, that it would put everything into market, talent, beauty, virtue, and man himself…”
  • “Trade… We design it thus and thus; it turns out otherwise and far better.”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Young American

Main Points (cont.)

  • “Gentlemen, the development of our American internal resources, the extension to the utmost of the commercial system, and the appearance of new moral causes which are to modify the state, are giving an aspect of greatness to the Future, which the imagination fears to open.”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Young American
  • Thoreau was a transcendentalist.
  • Transcendentalism: A literary and philosophical movement, associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, asserting the existence of an ideal spiritual reality that transcends the empirical and scientific and is knowable through intuition.
  • Source: Excerpted from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition Copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products N.V.
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1848)
  • Essayist, poet, and Transcendentalist
  • Born to a pencil maker in Concord, Mass. July 12, 1817
  • Went to Concord Academy and then to Harvard
  • Loved the outdoors
  • Best known for his book Walden
  • Other jobs teacher and pencil maker
  • Once went to chapel in a green coat “because the rules required black”
  • Refused to pay his poll tax
  • “He [Thoreau] is a singular character — a young man with much wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.” ---Nathaniel Hawthorne, distinguished American novelist
  • "He [Thoreau] had a great contempt for those who made no effort to gauge accurately their own powers and weaknesses, and by no means spared himself, of whom he said that a man gathers materials to erect a palace, and finally concludes to build a shantee with them." --Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher and Thoreau’s friend and mentor
  • Thoreau dedicated his life to the exploration of nature — not as a backdrop to human activity but as a living, integrated system of which you and I are simply a part. --Randall Conrad, Director of the Thoreau Project
  • “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison…. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” --Henry David Thoreau
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1848)
  • MAIN POINT 1: Thoreau prefers a laissez-faire government, but he does not call for abolishing government. Rather he wants a better government.
  • “That government is best which governs least…”
  • “…I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1848)
  • MAIN POINT 2: Most men serve the state mechanically and do not freely exercise moral judgment about their service.
  • “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose.”
  • MAIN POINT 3: It is man’s duty to wash his hands of wrong.
  • “It is not man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any…wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.”
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1848)
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1848)
  • MAIN POINT 4: Order, Civil Government, and the rule of the majority (i.e. democracy) sometimes prevents people from doing the right thing.
  • “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?”
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1848)
  • MAIN POINT 5: Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority because he has God on his side, and he should act immediately to wash his hand of wrong.
  • If a government is maintaining unjust laws, people should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government. They should “not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1848)
  • MAIN POINT 6: One honest man can change the state by standing up to it.
  • “…if one thousand, if on hundred, if ten men whom I could name,—if ten honest men only, —ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission.
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1848)
  • MAIN POINT 7: A man can change an unjust system by refusing to be unjust, and by being entirely willing to make a sacrifice.
  • “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison…. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”
  • “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.”
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1848)
  • MAIN POINT 8: Blood spilt is lamentable, but wounding one’s conscience is worse.
  • Suppose blood should flow when standing up to the government or the majority in refusal to consent to unjust laws. “Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death.”
  • MAIN POINT 9: The state should respect the individual.
  • “The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual…. There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imaging a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men.”
  • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1848)
  • George Bancroft (1800-1891)
  • The Progress of Mankind (1854)
  • Transcendentalism: A literary and philosophical movement, associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, asserting the existence of an ideal spiritual reality that transcends the empirical and scientific and is knowable through intuition.
  • George Bancroft
  • The Progress of Mankind (1854)
  • Point 1: Americans and their political system have discovered how to bring to bear the Divine mind, and thus we are destined for greatness.
  • …the condition of our race is one of growth or of decay. It is the glory of man that he is conscious of this law of his existence. (We great Americans choose growth.)
  • The progress of man consists in this, that he himself arrives at the perception of truth. The Divine mind, which is its source, left it to be discovered, appropriated and developed by finite creatures.
  • In this great work our country holds the noblest rank…. Our land extends far into the wilderness, and beyond the wilderness; and while on this side of the great mountains it gives the Western nations of Europe a theatre for the renewal of their youth, on the transmontane side, the hoary civilisation of the farthest antiquity leans forward from Asia to receive the glad tidings of the messenger of freedom. The islands of the Pacific entreat our protection, and at our suit the Empire of Japan breaks down its wall of exclusion….
  • George Bancroft
  • The Progress of Mankind (1854)
  • Point 2: In order to progress, each individual must contribute to the whole, and the whole of society is more intelligent than the wisest individual.
  • In order to advance human progress, it is every individual’s responsibility “to contribute some share to the general intelligence. The many are wiser than the few; the multitude than the philosopher; the race than the individual; and each successive generation than its predecessor….”
  • George Bancroft
  • The Progress of Mankind (1854)
  • Point 3: Historians study God’s work, and history is the study’s of man’s progress.
  • At the foot of every page in the annals of nations, may be written, “God reigns.”
  • …It is because God is visible in History that its office is the noblest except that of the poet.
  • Of all pursuits that require analysis, history…stands first. It is equal to philosophy; for as certainly as the actual bodies forth the ideal, so certainly does history contain philosophy. It is grander than the natural sciences; for its study is man, the last work of creation, and the most perfect in its relations with the Infinite.
  • In surveying the short period since man was created, the proofs of progress are so abundant, that we do not know with which of them to begin, or how they should be classified. He is seen in the earliest stages of society, bare of abstract truth, unskilled in the methods of induction, and hardly emancipated from bondage to the material universe. How wonderful is it, then, that a being whose first condition was so weak, so humble, and so naked, and s of whom no monument older than forty centuries can be found, should have accumulated such fruitful stores of intelligence, and have attained such perfection of culture!
  • George Bancroft
  • The Progress of Mankind (1854)
  • Point 4: “The human mind tends not only toward unity, but UNIVERSALITY.”
  • The world is just beginning to take to heart this principle of the unity of the race, and to discover how fully and how beneficently it is fraught with international, political, and social revolutions.


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