Monday, January 27, 2014

Emerson's Self-Reliance

Daguerreotype of Ralph Waldo Emerson
from Wikipedia
Preparing for a lecture on Transcendentalism, I enjoyed an opportunity to review Emerson’s beloved essay, Self-Reliance. This is the kind of stuff my mom insisted I should study when I was a kid, but it reads much differently decades later. Some of its impact has slackened, some has sharpened, and some has appeared all at once anew. I’m using an old Apollo Editions collection, so I cannot account for the exactitude of the quotations, but I’m happy to share nonetheless.

Ne te quaesiveris extra: “Do not seek outside yourself” (p. 31).

“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” (p. 31)

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty” (p. 32).

“We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents” (p. 33).

“How is the boy the master of society; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits… You must court him; he does not court you” (p. 34).

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members… Self-reliance is its aversion” (p. 35).

“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist” (p. 35).

“Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to this or that; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it” (p. 36).

“Your goodness must have some edge to it, -- else it is none” (p. 36).

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (p. 38).

“Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee” (p. 41).

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (p. 41).

“To be great is to be misunderstood” (p. 41).

“The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag life of a hundred tacks. This is only microscopic criticism. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency” (p. 42).

“All history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons” (p. 44).

“What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?” (p. 46).

“The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, the essence of virtue, and the essence of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachers are tuitions” (p. 46).

“We first share the life by which things exist and afterwards see them as appearances in nature and forget that we have shared their cause” (p. 46).

“All my willful actions and acquisitions are but roving; -- the most trivial reverie, the faintest native emotion, are domestic and divine” (p. 47).

“The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps” (p. 47).

Man “cannot be happy and strong until he… lives with nature in the present, above time” (p. 49).

“And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far off remembering of the intuition… it is a perceiving that Truth and Right are” (pp. 49-50, emphasis added).

“Why then did we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies because it works and is” (pp. 50-51).

“We fancy it rhetoric when we speak of eminent virtue. We do not yet see that virtue is Height, and that a man or a company of men, plastic and permeable to principles, by the law of nature must overpower and ride all cities, nations, kings, rich men, poets, who are not” (p. 51).

“Virtue is the governor, the creator, the reality” (p. 51).

“I see the same law working in nature for conservation and growth. The poise of a planet, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are also demonstrations of the self-sufficing and therefore self-relying soul” (p. 51).

“Isolation must precede true society” (p. 52). 

1 comment:

Jenny Wood said...

Very interesting quotes. I think I'd have to read more of him to know if I agree with what seems to be a pretty strict stance on self-reliance. It sounds a bit relativistic in some of the quotes - what you think inside yourself is right. Gotta learn more.