What we fine important about Emerson is not that he is that interesting (many think he is not), but the influence that he has on the American literary system. After this, American literature will no longer be the same. Many of these people we will be reading, like Thoreau, are connected to Emerson. Emerson gave Thoreau a job being a handyman around his house when he felt like working. He wasn't the most hardworking fellow whoever lived. But Emerson took him under wing and ultimately took a whole generation of poets under his wing intellectually.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born 1803, the son of a Unitarian minister. He went to Boston Public Latin School, (which is still there by the way), went to Harvard, became a minister, but was not very well suited for the job. He gradually developed a faith greater in individual moral sentiment than in revealed religion. As I said, the Romantics don't really undo what the Enlightenment has done, so much as take it a step further. You experiment in your own life to find out what will give it meaning in the way you experimented with . . . Oh, Benjamin Franklin would gather a bunch of people and run electricity through a turkey to cook it. Well, now you're doing that same sort of thing with your own psyche, figuring out what it is that will make your life have meaning, not what somebody else told you to do. So the reliance on authority is gone. Still you have to rely on yourself, hence self-reliance.
Emerson lived in Concord. He was banished from Harvard for thirty years, because of his radical ways.
Page 440 -- "Nature"
He begins by expressing the American anxiety and dissatisfaction with
the literary tradition. "Our age is retrospective." What is retrospective?
- Looking backward.
"It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories,
and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to
face - we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original
relation to the universe?" So, don't look at the world through somebody
else's eyes, look at it through your own eyes. Moses' burning bush doesn't
do any good for you; you need your own burning bush.
"There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand your own
works and laws and worship." We are starting something new in America.
Therefore, we need to come up with some new outlooks, new insights. By
the way, despite his rather irreligious ways, this has had a profound impact
on American religion. Right? You need your own relationship with God, not
the relationship that your parents or your grandparents. And you still
hear that sort of stuff in American pulpits today all these years later.
"Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We
must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever
curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things
can satisfy." In other words, reason is competent to explore and understand
the universe. So, this too is from the Enlightenment. Earlier, Christianity
had said you have to accept some things as a mystery, based on faith, like
the idea of the Trinity. How can God be one in three? It's a mystery; you
have to accept it. He's saying, wait, no, we can understand anything that
there is to be understood with the power of reason.
"All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature." So, the
Romantic Movement is in itself something of a science trying to come up
with a theory of nature, a little more inclusively. The previous system
had excluded emotions to a large degree, ultimately values, also. It is
relatively easy to come up with the idea of making lights, but how do you
use them? The atomic bomb. Sure, we can make these things, but where is
the moral wisdom on what we should do with them. A scientist can tell us
how to make stuff. They cannot tell us what is right and wrong. So, here
they are trying to get back to a theory that will not only include emotion
and passion, but also right and wrong.
"Now many are thought not only unexplained but inexplicable, as language,
sleep, dreams, beasts, sex." He's saying that some people think these are
a mystery we just have to put asterisks (*) by them. He says no. We can
"Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and
the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all
which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and
art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE."
O. K. This comes from De Cartes - The idea of "me" as distinct from everything
else. Pare away everything that could be a delusion. What do you have left?
Could I be a delusion? Could you be really asleep in your room right now?
Oh, you wish so! Have you ever had a dream that you were in class? Never?
I once dreamed that I was a butterfly, and woke up. Or am I butterfly dreaming
I am a man? We don't quite know what reality is. We have a feeling what
it is, but the only thing we can be certain about, according to Des Cartes,
is cogito ergosum (I think, therefore I am),
which is the individual. We can't even be sure that what we are seeing
is out there. Since I am thinking, that implies existence. This is his
postulant. This is self evident -- so, we start out with the self and then
everything else is outside of it and we have to come to some kind of relationship
with it. For the division between me and nothing, now this is a valid division.
Are you really self contained and distinct from the world around you? Are
you? Did any of you eat within the last couple of days? Have you been breathing?
The air that is in your body now, where was it a few minutes ago, in somebody
else's body? We have this sort of fiction that we are distinct from the
universe. That is not true. We are constantly taking things in, and sloughing
things off, and are part of the world around us. You want to be distinct
and solo to yourself. Go out into space for a few minutes and you will
see just long that will last. Long enough for your lungs to explode from
the lack of oxygen. You won't live long by yourself. But this is his premise,
me versus not me.
He goes through and brings out different elements of things. He talks
about Nature (roman numeral I) page 441.
(Roman numeral II) is Commodity. ". . . Commodity; Beauty; Language;
and Discipline. . . . Under the general name of Commodity, I rank all those
advantages which our senses owe to nature." So nature brings us certain
Page 443 (roman numeral III) is Beauty. They misspelled the Greek
there, but that is not uncommon, because most of these English textbook
editors don't know Greek. Anyway, the cosmos is the world, but is also
the word where we get cosmology as in beauty. For the Greeks, the two are
Next he talks about Language and its part in all of nature, and, of
course, language is one of those things that distinguishes us from the
animals, sort of a sign of our intelligence.
Discipline, Idealism, Spirit, Prospects -- The intro sort of caught the most of the things that you find in here. This is very much a product of Enlightenment. We are coming up with the science. We are trying to find the rules which govern nature. But then also the Romantics, we are going beyond the movements of the planets, where we are trying to study the movements of the soul. How the dreams work, how sex works, things like that. Things have been sort of beyond what the Enlightenment would try to understand.
Page 492 "Self-Reliance"
Ne te quæsiveris extra - Nothing
beyond yourself. The Greek and Roman philosophers, especially the Stoics,
had this goal of being self-sufficient, self-reliant. The goal was to have
your own little household, and if possible everything there was useful.
If you needed clothes, you had sheep out in the field. You would sheer
the wool off and make the clothes out of that. You would have sort of a
self - sufficient compound that did not depend on trade with the outside
world. They had this as a sort of the goal for the self. You should not
be overly attached to things that can be taken from you, like your house.
It can burn down. Your husband or wife could die. Your children could die.
So, if you are going to be totally devastated by the loss of any of these
things, then you are overly attached. Marcus Aurelius said, "That when
you go to tuck your children in at night, think to yourself you could be
dead tomorrow, and try not to be so attached that you lose perspective.
Instead of praying to the gods that they save your children, pray that
you will not fear their loss." --- That is pretty grim stuff. Isn't it?
But that is the ultimate. This is where you are heading when you practice
self-reliance. That I am not relying for my happiness on the continuing
existence of even my family. If I lose them, I will be somewhat sad, but
I will move on, because I am a rugged individual, I am self-reliant. That
is tough to do.
"I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which
were original and not conventional. Always the soul hears an admonition
in such lines. Let the subject by what it may. The sentiment they instil
is of more value that any thought they may contain." He says it is good
to be original, regardless of the thought that is there. The fact that
you are thinking for yourself is something, rather than just thinking what
somebody else told you to think. For the most part, again we like to talk
about ourselves as Americans, as being rugged individualists, self-reliant.
For the most part, do we think for ourselves, or do we think the thoughts
that others tell us to? How many of you think for yourselves?
"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. Speak your
latent conviction and it will be the universal sense; for always the inmost
becomes the outmost, --and our first thought is rendered back to us by
the trumpets of the Last Judgment." If you want to be truly universal,
write about the inner most truth of yourself, and assume that other people
will respond to that. I once read a story that this fellow was writing
and he lived in one of these sort of Gothic southern towns, not unlike
say Huburn and all sorts of little twisted interesting
things go on in a place like that. But not only what you would expect is
to preserve the story and then change the names to protect the guilty.
What he did was keep all the names of the town's people, but he put (it
was something like The New York Company) so here you had all these little
town folks that you would recognize their names, but they were in charge
of some big powerful corporation. Well, he knew nothing about New York,
or how corporations work, he was writing about what he did not know and
really had not done the research to find out about it. If you want to be
universal, you don't write about New York when the only place you've ever
been is Ruston, you write about Ruston. You find the universality right
here in our own back yard.
"Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we
ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton, is that they set at naught books and
traditions, and spoke not what men wrote but what they thought." Now he
is rather romanticizing these people. Milton, of course, used everybody
that had ever written to piece together his story, although you could see
in a sense that it was original. Plato, of course, everything he wrote
he said that Socrates said. And Moses, of course, it was what God said,
but original more than the others perhaps because it was directly from
God to Moses. It was his own apprehension of the Divine, his own experience
of the Divine that he was writing. Emerson is saying to rely on your own
experience. Trust your experience- this is very much a part of the American
democratic ideal that people, as a whole, are competent and wise enough
that they can make decisions for themselves. Other governments say no you
can't. You need a king to tell you what to do. You need a bishop to tell
you what to believe. And America says we don't need that. People can think
"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction
that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself
for better, for worse, as his portion . . . " You have to till the plot
ground which was given to you. So don't sit around and envy Shakespeare,
Aristotle, Plato, Virgil all the great writers of the past. Do your own
writing about, or thinking, or creativity from right where you are. You
can see why, even though this may not be the most exciting stuff written,
it was tremendously exciting for American authors, American painters, and
American musicians. This is saying, find the stuff here in America that
is around you and write about that.
" . . . God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. It needs
a divine man to exhibit any thing divine." By divine he means, of course,
your own original insight, your own will, your own power to write. The
more creative that you become, the more like God you become. Therefore,
you can reveal God.
"Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." He's saying
trust yourself. Follow your own understanding of things.
"The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain
as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy
attitude of human nature." Here he is saying that we don't need to show
an overly great deal of respect to those around us, certainly not to the
point that we no longer respect for ourselves.
Why is it so difficult to be so creative, to be original? Because Society
is telling us to be like everybody else, and often under the guise of originality.
What is it that the Army says is the reason you should join the Army? What
is the old recruiting song? -- Be all you can be! --
Then you get in there and you have to be like everybody else. You all get
the same hair cut. You all are going to get the same outfit. You all are
going to do the same stuff. So, you are going to be like everybody else
is. Anyway, he goes into the push to conformity. "These are the voices
which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter
into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood
of every one of its members." Very sexist stuff, by the way. Apparently,
only men can be creative. What he is saying is that Society is trying to
undermine your ability to be yourself. So, we can sort of universalize
"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." So you give up who you are in order to get a
"Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." So if you want to truly
be a man or, I suppose, a woman, you must be a nonconformist. Otherwise,
you are just part of the cattle.
"What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, it I live wholly
from within? My friend suggested -- 'But these impulses may be from below,
not from above.' I replied, 'They do not seem to me to be such; but if
I am the devil's child, I will live then from the devil.'" Remember what
I said about satin, at least, he was doing what he came up with. So, he's
saying if that is the way I am, if that is my nature, then I will live
according to my nature. "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature."
You cannot ask a lion to live according to the rules of the ox. A lion
can't eat grass. They have to eat oxen, or whatever else they can bring
down. So, they have to live by their nature.
"Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this;.
. ." Is the lion good or bad? If you are the one being eaten, it's bad,
right? But that's from that perspective. So, he is saying that good and
evil, these are shifting. What's good to one person maybe evil to another.
". . . the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong
what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition
as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he." You must stand firm
in the face of all the opposition, even if you are the only one.
You see a lot of his thoughts are the source of the American political
thinking as well, both liberal and conservative. Here we have some very
conservative stuff. They're talking about why don't you help the poor?
He says, "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." So, he's mad about the fact
that he got snookered into giving a dollar away to some poor starving person.
I wish I had it back, Ebenezer Scrooge here. ". . .miscellaneous popular
charities; the education at college of fools; . . ." oh, he knew about
Tech. ". . . the building of meeting houses to the vain end to which many
now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; -- though
I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked
dollar which by-and-by I shall have the manhood to withhold." So he's going
to clamp down, we don't need that charity stuff. Let them starve.
"I do not wish to expiate, but to live." This is on page 495. Expiation
- that is paying for your sins. This is what the Puritans were about. Right?
They were always worried about making up for their sins in someway, through
Jesus, through their own life that they led. He said "I do not wish to
expiate, but to live. My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for
itself and not for a spectacle." So, you do not live for others to watch
you, you live for yourself. So, stay off the "Jerry Springer Show."
"For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure." If you
are not in conformance, the world will beat you up.
"Yet is the discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of
the senate and the college. It is easy enough for a firm man who knows
the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. Their rage is decorous
and prudent, for they are timid as being very vulnerable themselves. But
when their feminine rage . . . " Notice again the sexism implied here.
". . . the indignation of the people is added, when the ignorant and the
poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom
of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity
and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment." So to
be able to dismiss the rabble, it shows true nobility.
"Trust your emotion. In your metaphysics you have denied personality
to the Deity: yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them
heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave
your theory as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee." What
is he saying? All right. Well, your enlightenment philosophy here says
that God has no personality. If your experience says otherwise, well, go
with that. Go with your experience. If you sight a big guy with a white
beard out there shaking his fist at you, well, that's life. Whatever it
is that you understand God to be, that is God for you
His next sentence is probably his most famous sentence. "A foolish consistency
is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers
and divines." It even rhymes, doesn't it? What's he saying? We are trapped
by own past. Sometimes what I experienced twenty years ago is not true
to whom I am today. Do I have to stick to that position just because I
once held it? You can change; you can move. Ronald Reagan was a Democrat,
who became a very conservative Republican. People make those kind of changes
all the time. It says -- don't worry about being consistent, even with
your own past.
"I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency."
For him, conformity is being like everybody around you; consistency is
conformity to yourself. Don't even conform to what you were, conform to
what you are.
"Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment
of the times, and hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and office, the
fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible
Thinker and Actor moving wherever moves a man; . . ." Notice that God is
no longer just a Thinker, He is also and Actor, an Agent, somebody who
is doing something.
"A man Cæsar is born, and for ages after,
we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and
cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible
of man. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; . . ." So,
he says where do great movements come from? The insight of one person who
shares that vision with others. So, one person with power, with will creates,
and then the rest follow.
"We denote this primary wisdom (of these founders) as Intuition, whilst
all later teachings are tuitions." Well you are familiar with tuition,
aren't you? Paying to learn what somebody else says. But the intuition
comes to you directly, without me having to tell you.
He more or less paraphrases De Carte on page 500. "Man is timid and
apologetic. He is not longer upright. He dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,'
but quotes some saint or sage." So, you don't rely on your own existence,
you rely upon what somebody else has told you.
He gives us sort of a list of things he wants. First of all he says
-- give up praying. "Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition
to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes
of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous." Now this
is the kind of prayer, obviously, that the common person would pray. Remember
what Marcus Aurelius said about not pray that I not lose my children, but
pray that I no longer fear their loss, not pray that I be spared death,
but pray that I not fear it. This is sort of another way of saying that
same sort of thing, not looking beyond yourself.
"As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease
o f the intellect." Praying is looking somewhere else for power, not your
own will. Creeds are something, which our religions give us a way of turning
our thinking over to somebody else, instead of thinking our own selves.
#2 -- He goes against traveling for the sake of traveling, taking
the tour. Again, what does this accomplish? You go to Europe, you look
around and see thousands of years of culture and then you come back to
America and try to bring it with you. You're not finding what's here. Are
you? You are not creating light on this spot. You're traveling and just
for your own amusement, rather than really sinking in roots. Anybody that
travels, travels away from himself. So, you are traveling to escape yourself,
which you really, ultimately cannot do.
"Traveling is a fool's paradise." Not anymore, it is pretty miserable
often. So, he is saying travel leads us to imitate.
"Insist on yourself; never imitate."
#4 "As our Religion, our Education, our Art look abroad, so does our
spirit of society." So where does the religion of America come form? Europe.
Where does the education system come from? Comes from Europe. Where does
art come from? Comes from Europe. What about manners, the way that we act
with each other? It comes from Europe also. Well, let us not import this
"Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains
on the other. Its progress is only apparent, like the workers of a treadmill."
He is saying that we go through all these changes, but nothing really improves
overall. Now, in the nineteenth century the idea of evolution will come
about, Darwin. The idea that things can progress. This is a more typical
view that for any advance there is something slides back. We've got cars
now, but we've also got pollution. For any good thing that happens, something
bad will happen also to keep it from being a real improvement.
"For the Universe has three children, . . . , the Knower, the Doer,
and the Sayer. These stand respectively for the love of truth, for the
love of good, and for the love of beauty." Now, he is going back to Greek
philosophy, isn't that ironic. Truth, beauty, goodness these three converge
at the top so that what is true is also good is also beautiful. One of
the reasons that the Copernican system is accepted over the Ptolemaic one
is that not only is it simpler but it is more elegant and therefore more
beautiful. A wonderful scientific theory, one that ties up all the loose
ends should be beautiful as well as being true.