Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1844)



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  • Transcendentalism
  • Transcendentalism was an American literary, political and philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century that centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other notable figures include Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker. The term “Transcendentalism” was derived from the German philosopher, Kant, who called “all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects.” Transcendentalists criticized their peers for blind conformity and encouraged people to find their own voices. The movement arose from liberal, New England Congregationalists, who believed in the importance of human striving and opposed the Puritan belief in total human depravity. It also reflected a shift from the tenets of the Enlightenment to Romanticism—intuitive and in touch with the senses. The Transcendentalists were “modern,” trying to take John Locke’s empiricism and temper it with Christianity; however, they eventually became skeptical of organized religion. They had a great appreciation for the powers of the mind and practiced a “non-doctrinal spirituality.” The transcendentalists were displeased with the society in which they lived, and they turned their focus to the policies of the U.S. government, specifically the treatment of Native Americans, the practice of slavery and the involvement in the war with Mexico.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
  • born in Boston in 1803, the son of a Unitarian minister who died when Emerson was 8 years old; family was left to charity of the church
  • mother kept boardinghouse to put her sons through Harvard
  • studied theology and graduated from Harvard in 1821 (35th in a class of 59)
  • was ordained a pastor in 1829
  • influenced by German philosophers and faith in Christianity began to waver
  • resigned from his church in 1831 after abandoning belief in the Lord’s Supper
  • wife, Ellen, died from tuberculosis at age 19, allowing Emerson to travel, write and lecture
  • first son, Waldo died in 1842 at age of 5; Emerson never fully recovered
  • arguably the most influential writer of the 19th century
  • writings focused on non-conformity, self-reliance and anti-institutionalism
  • other works: Nature, The American Scholar, Representative Men, The Conduct of Life
  • died on April 27, 1882; buried in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1844)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1844)
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  • Self-Reliance: Main Points
  • 1. Everything you need is inside of you. Trust yourself.
  • a. “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.” Men such as Moses, Plato and Milton were geniuses because they spoke what they thought, not what others thought.
  • b. Man must have the courage to face the genius that surely lies within, this “transcendent destiny.”
  • 2. The original is always clearer than the copy. Be yourself.
  • “…that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide.”
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  • b. Man cannot understand and embrace his own power until he puts his heart and work into finding it. He finds joy in the resulting effort; conversely, following others leads to a “deliverance which does not deliver.”
  • c. “…but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1844)
  • 3. Dance to the beat of your own drummer. Free yourself.
  • a. We are born unique and separate; look to infants who do not conform to anybody. Young boys also operate independently, and bother themselves “never about consequences, about interests.” Man is, however, “clapped into jail by his consciousness.”
  • b. Society conspires for conformity. “Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” To be a man, do not conform to the expectations of others.
  • c. Men fall into societal ruts of “badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” If a man hides behind the mask of churches, dogma or political parties, it is difficult, if not impossible, to know who he really is.
  • d. It’s your thing; do what you want to do. “But do your thing, and I shall know you.” Be an independent thinker. Conforming “scatters your force.”
  • e. Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say, ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1844)
  • 4. Man must take care of himself. Be by yourself.
  • a. “Then, again, do not tell me…of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.” Emerson wants to be charitable on his own terms, not because someone/society has pressured him into being so. This mindset threatened authority.
  • b. “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think.”
  • “Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say, ‘Come out unto us,’—Do not spill thy soul….keep thy state.”
  • 5. It is important to live in the moment. Get over yourself.
  • a. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” A man should say how he feels right now, even if that contradicts something he has already said. It is okay to be misunderstood, as great men in history have been misunderstood. “To be great is to be misunderstood.”
  • b. Don’t “drag about this monstrous corpse of your memory.” Live in this day. Seize the day, and do not regret what happened yesterday.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1844)
  • 7. Society makes puppets out of men. Stand up for yourself.
  • a. “Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed, does not.” Bending to the pressures of society, man has become timid, “afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.”
  • b. Society chooses everything for us, our hobbies, occupations and even our spouses. “We are parlor soldiers.” “It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance,--a new respect for the divinity in man,--must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property…”
  • c. When an American is compared with a native New Zealander, it becomes apparent that while the American may possess more worldly goods, the native retains a strength that the “white man” has lost. “The civilized man has built a coach but lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but loses so much support of muscle…His notebooks impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit.”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1844)
  • 7. The quest for property, social betterment is the want of self-reliance. Rely on yourself.
  • a. “And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men measure their worth based on what others have, not by who they are. Material over character.
  • b. “But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property,…out of a new respect for his being.”
  • c. “Our dependence on these foreign goods leads us to our slavish respect for numbers. The political parties meet in numerous conventions; the greater the concourse, and with each new uproar of announcement, The delegation from Essex! The Democrats from New Hampshire! The Whigs of Maine!”
  • d. It is far better for a man to brush all of this off and stand alone. At that moment, he becomes strong, for “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
  • Background:
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803-April 27, 1882) began his career as a Unitarian minister but went on, as an independent man of letters, to become the preeminent lecturer, essayist and philosopher of 19th century America.
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  • Waldo was born May 25, 1803, the fourth of eight children. His family—descendants of a number of noteworthy New England ministers—prized education, learning and culture. His father, William Emerson, distinguished minister of First Church, Boston.
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  • His father died when Waldo was eight, leaving the family without financial support. His mother Ruth sold her husband's library (which became the Boston Athenaeum), took in boarders and worked as a maid. They often had not enough to eat. Waldo and his brother Charles had only one overcoat between them.
  •  
  • Aunt Mary Moody Emerson, his father's unmarried sister, was the dominant influence of Emerson's childhood and youth. She anticipated, especially in her openness to natural religion, the Transcendentalist sensibility. Emerson's distinctive views first began to emerge in his letters to "Tnamurya," an anagram of "Aunt Mary," during the 1820s.
  • Waldo entered Harvard at 14. He began then to keep a journal, a practice he continued for the rest of his life, later calling its volumes—all long since published—his "savings bank."
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  • After graduation from the College in 1821, at the age of 18, Emerson taught school for his uncle, the Rev. Samuel Ripley, in Waltham and later opened a finishing school for girls, but he did not enjoy school teaching.
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  • In October 1826, Emerson was licensed to preach by the Middlesex Association of Ministers. He became dangerously ill that fall, probably suffering early symptoms of tuberculosis.
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  • In 1829 Emerson married Ellen Louisa Tucker. Ellen died of tuberculosis less than 18 months later.
  • In 1833 Emerson began a new career as a lecturer. He made Concord his home and lived there for the rest of his life, leaving it only for lecture tours. At first he lectured mostly on scientific subjects, in a poetic spirit.
  • In 1835 he married Lydia Jackson. Lydian, as he called her, took a keen interest in his ideas and his work. They had four children.
  • In 1836 he published his first book, Nature, in an anonymous edition of 500 copies that took six years to sell out.
  • Emerson's reputation flourished, as did the demand for his addresses, as the lecture circuit rapidly became a popular cultural institution.
  • In a series of rhetorically powerful addresses in the early 1850s, one of the most significant of which has only recently been published, Emerson used his oratorical skills effectively in the antislavery cause.
  • Emerson's health began to fail in 1871, at age 68. He lived out a long slow decline, though he continued to lecture, sometimes from his chair, until two years before his death. He died in his sleep, aged 79, on April 27, 1882.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Young American (1844)
  • Main Points:
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  • American is the country of the Future
    • It seem so easy for America to inspire and express the most expansive and humane spirit; new-born, free, healthful, strong, the land of the laborer, of the democrat, of the philanthropist, of the believer, of the saint, she should speak for the human race.
  • Importance of the Railroad
    • The increase acquaintance it has given the American people with the boundless resources of their own soil.
    • By fifty years the planting of tracts of land, the choice of water privileges, the working of mines, and other natural advantages. Railroad iron is a magician’s rod, in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.
  • Commerce is important to America
    • This is the good and this the evil of trade, that it would put everything into market, talent, beauty, virtue, and man himself…
    • Trade is the strong man that broke it (feudalism) down.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Young American (1844)
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  • Main points:
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  • ·  Commerce is the most significant political issue for Americans because its revolutionary new developments combine us together as Americans.
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    • 1. “There is no American citizen who has not been stimulated to reflection by the facilities now in progress of construction for travel and the transportation of goods in the United States.”
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    • 2. The railroad creates American sentiment and connects people with resources.  It also unifies people together as a country.
    • ·  “America is the country of the future.”
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          • 1. … “It is a country of beginnings, or projects, or designs, and expectations.  It has no past: all has an onward and prospective look.”
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          • 2. … “For remote generations. We should be mortified to learn that the little benefit we change in our own persons to receive was the utmost they would yield.”
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  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Young American (1844)
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  • Main points:
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  • · History of commerce provides a record of the development of America and the tremendous benefits trade has brought.
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    • 1.       “It is a new agent in the world and one of great functions; it is a very intellectual force.”
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    • 2.  “Trade is an instrument in the hands of the friendly Power which works for us in our own despite.”
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