Ralph Waldo Emerson's works "Self-Reliance” and Nature esteem transcendentalism as a romantic, individualistic philosophy of life in hopes of establishing contemporary concepts in society which reject traditional institutions and customs. Emerson’s thoughts are generally based on inward reflection, in which the capabilities of one’s soul and intuition are fundamental. He believes that a rejuvenated sense of personal inspiration can overpower the dogmatic constructs society imposes on its members.
Emerson stresses the potential for genius and creativity in all people through the depth of philosophic interest in nature and in oneself, allowing people to find self-truth or their purpose. He further expounds upon this concept of the pursuit of self-realization by describing the process of gaining insight through opening oneself to the powers of nature in solitude and closing oneself to the influence of society in isolation. Isolation reflects Emerson’s statement of individualism as its emphasis is placed on the mental strength of a person over traditional systems of thought.
This philosophy esteems individuals above all: society, religion, and other institutions and systems of thought. The dogmatisms imposed on human beings are part of a course one must deviate from in order to achieve individual freedom of thought and expression. A person must use society as a standard from which they must rise above by disregarding its norms. Emerson repeatedly calls on individuals to value their own thoughts, opinions, and experiences above those presented to them by others. Each individual is a unique expression of creativity and will, capable of contributing different ideas and reforms to society.
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Mankind’s divinity also plays a prominent role in the methods of isolation. All people, according to Emerson, have divine powers within. Success and achievement are derived from people themselves, not bestowed by another superior being. He uses the example of “prayer as a means to effect a private end, is theft and meanness” (Self-Reliance 545). This direct link between divinity and the individual provides assurance that the individual will, when correctly exercised, can never produce evil.
Individual will, in Emerson's philosophy, is not something to be rejected or hidden, as done so by many who are unable to see past society’s dictums, but rather a force to be asserted and upheld for the more advanced progress of man. In this context however, an individual who fails to be self-reliant, who does not intend to act upon his or her own thoughts and ideas, is out of step with its purpose. Such a person, in Emerson's view, cannot be productive, fulfilled, and therefore happy, as they are not living for anything real.
These people are only temporarily pacified by ideals that have already been established, innovations that have already been discovered, and abilities that have already been exhausted. On the other hand, a person who is self-reliant can be assured that he or she is carrying out a divine purpose of life, as no one before them could have had the exact same ideas, strengths, or mental environment to work with. Those who flout the rules and conventions of society and religion do, however, suffer disapproval as a result.
But, Emerson points out, those men who were earlier condemned are now considered some of the greatest thinkers of all time: Galileo, Socrates, Copernicus, and countless others. Amending the immediate thought process of one’s world exposes the counter ideas of those who do not want change, but is ultimately beneficial when they are given time to adjust and open their minds to new ideas. The first innate reaction of man is to reject that which is different and may pose dangers to the familiar way of life.
This “terror that scares us from self-trust” (Self-Reliance 537) is the beginning of the emergence of universal conformity which, in turn, eclipses innovation and personal growth. However, the more people open themselves to their personal judgment and intuition, the more trust they will have for each other as a mutual respect for ideas will develop. People will be able to relate to each other through their processes of thought, ensuring acknowledgment amongst all for the effort and uniqueness society will experience through individual contributions.
Self-reliance is not a merely a matter of averting tradition but, just as importantly, a matter of believing and doing what one is uniquely suited to believe and do. Emerson expects the self-reliant to substitute originality for imitation in every sphere of life. Referencing architecture, Emerson explains that originality will yield a product that is superior to one made by imitation: If the American artist will study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people ... e will create a house in which all these will find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also (Self-Reliance 547). A commitment to live according to one's own ideas about every matter will certainly result in benefits far greater than those which are given by adhering to former ideals of society as people will be able to almost customize the different aspects of their lives. Isolating oneself from the mental influences of others provides people a tool to aid their focus on what they really desire from themselves and their lives.
Though solitude arrives at the same product as isolation, abilities and confidence in oneself, it requires a separate course of action. In solitude, one must physically disconnect from civilization and open oneself to the influences of nature and the powers of the unquantifiable. In Nature, Emerson displays the overwhelming sense of unity, harmony, and the blending of man's identity with the divine essence of nature, as the entire “universe is composed of Nature and the Soul” (Nature 493). By being in nature, one comes upon the feeling of losing his human point of view.
An omniscient one is then created through the feeling that man exists as part of nature-“I am nothing. I see all” (Nature 494). Nature’s constructs, such as the sublime, help people to not only appreciate their positions in the universe, but realize the vast unknown and the consequent pettiness of everyday temporal problems. By ridding oneself of the perceived dualism between people and nature, one becomes part of all creation and is able to access the power nature exerts. Solitude also includes the awareness of time and its genuine importance that nature conveys to man.
Emerson counsels the self-reliant to keep their focus on the present. “Man postpones or remembers,” (Self-Reliance 541) he explains. “He does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future” (Self-Reliance 541). One who lingers in the past or worries about the future wastes one’s life in regret while another who looks to the future misses today's opportunities and pleasures. It is Emerson’s confidence in the present that leads him to establish that consistency is foolish.
That a certain belief or course of action was correct, useful, or best in the past does not guarantee that it remains so in the present. Conversely, to leave behind a belief or a way of doing things does not mean that it was not useful at the time or that one was wrong to have pursued it, but it no longer applies. He refers to a rose’s ability to just grow, no matter what may happen in the future and what had happened in the past. The rose simply does what it is supposed to do, and does not let its goal out of sight by becoming distracted with mere possibilities or previous occurrences whose effects cannot be altered.
The ability to live in the moment ensures that an individual uses the potential of every moment to its fullest, ultimately creating a genuine purpose for said individual to work towards and a higher probability of fulfillment in life. This individual goal, however, comes with its own approach. Emerson acknowledges the fact that through isolation, people gear towards finding something they that they either want to achieve or experience as they are able to focus their thoughts on their own potential. Reaching a goal, however, has no preset or guideline; people must go about doing so in their own way.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of an apparently inconsistent course through life, Emerson uses a sailing journey as a metaphor: “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks” (Self-Reliance 538). The knowledge that one is following the true path to the right destination, despite apparent inconsistencies, gives one confidence to ignore the taunts of others who deride one for changing course. By complying with both isolation and solitude, intuition judgment and appreciation become the powers by which people liberate themselves from the constructs and opinions of others and focus on personal growth.
Emerson’s perception of solitude suggests that one opens themselves to the exterior influences of nature to gain insight whereas his theory of isolation contends that people use civilization as a standard from which they must deviate. If the individual is able to progress, society will do so automatically. Therefore people must trust their own characters and way of life. Isolation also combats the notion that all people are obliged to acquiesce to societal conformities that are ultimately detrimental to both individual and communal well-being.
The “norm” is not always right, society regresses instead of progresses as people refuse to change what has been, in fear of being different. Solitude results in personal acceptance to where they are in life as people open themselves to the sublime or powers they cannot compete with, imposing a sense of humility and therefore a realistic outlook to life and one’s own potential. Consequently, nature along with the powers of the human mind embodies true happiness and fulfillment.
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