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Ralph Waldo Emersons Self Reliance English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1529 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“Ne te quaesiveris extra,” (i.e. Do not seek outside yourself) from the very simplistic yet radically cryptic opening the reader, more specifically the individual, is given insight as to what is expected from an author and thinker who preaches a new consciousness that defined a generation of men and women (Whicher 147). Thus, it is evident how the individual must continuously carry on in an attempt to establish a self, while endeavoring to properly navigating through the mental journey inflicted by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. Throughout Self-Reliance, Emerson utilizes “the genius” in some humans to build and fortify his ideas (Whicher 147-68). Furthermore, he uses his religious ancestry as well as “anti-Lockean” or Transcendentalist knowledge to further the gap that separates the various institutions of conformity, the ideals of individualism, and of self-reliance. While Emerson encourages righteous actualization of self and states how the most brilliant minds throughout history who “…spoke not of men, but what they thought” (Whicher 147), this notion of untainted avant-garde thought seems significantly whimsical; originality regardless of how untainted it seems always draws its origin from some source. Moreover, it is my belief that, an individual or more directly an identity can only be crafted through interaction, association, and differentiation from established society. Although the epitome of the Transcendental idea is to reach a higher level of understanding and enlightenment, or the “self-genius” in all “American” individuals, this Transcendentalist movement, ironically, is rooted in German idealism and Indian philosophy. As blood was spilled in order to protect the American institutions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it was time for the pen to drip its ink to protect the “Tabula Rasa”, which Emerson establishes to be untainted innovation through an authentic acknowledgment of self, from foreign influences that seek to do nothing more than destroy individualism at the most inherent of levels.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance can be limiting to the reader, due to the appraisal, admiration, and worship of the “self” above all, or essentially establishing the self as the paradigm of all virtues. In Self -Reliance, Emerson uses few outside sources in his work, relying mainly on his own knowledge and intuition in order to persuade and influence his audience. Expanding on this thought, a characteristic that is common in much of Emerson’s work are the spaces he leaves for the reader to fill in. These spaces are primarily the questions he poses, the rhetorical statements, etc. For example, “I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears and admonition in such lines…” (Whicher 147).Who would not have questions about this ambiguous painter; the fact that this artist whose means of communication is color and illustration is expressing his sentiments through the written word, and even the notions of whether Emerson is really the ultimate judge of originality and convention. This aspect of Emerson’s writing style is both a weakness and strength. These gaps strengthen the reader’s interest because one can personalize the ideas which Emerson conveys. Similarly, the incomplete ideas can become a limitation to the reader because this in turn may further confuse the reader in their venture to understand/decipher the already complex writing and phrasing, along with contributing to derailing the individual by procuring an incorrect interpretation.

When one peruses through Self-Reliance, one may find a problem with the message Emerson is trying to express. Emerson constantly beats into the reader to believe in one’s self. This repetition used by Emerson can either motivate or limit the reader. It may limit the reader because a man can only say something so many times until it loses its gist and becomes redundant. Contrastingly, it may motivate the reader by reinforcing the notion of believing in one’s self, emotionally connecting the reader with the author. Expanding on the author’s limitations, the time period in which the work was written plays a major role on how much the essay impacts its audience. We, as the audience, are reading Self-Reliance over a century from when it was written. How influential the essay is on contemporary readers is most certainly no where near the ground breaking impact it had during its original publication. In modern day society, Emerson may not have the same radical effect of pushing the boundaries of the established norm, more often than not Self-Reliance is somewhat suffocating. Emerson bestows a message upon its readers of believing in our self and advises his readers on how to break free from the conformity of society’s norms, placing above all the individual, on the highest of platforms. Irrefutably, this message is common among many today. For example, in examining many self help books and self esteem pamphlets this message is common among most of them.

In examining Emerson’s motivations for the creation of Self-Reliance one must examine the authors past and his ideals. Ralph Waldo Emerson was born into a very religious family; his father was a minister at the First Church of Massachusetts. His ancestry can be traced back to a generation of ministers. Raised in this religious environment, there was no doubt that Emerson would be expected to follow the path of spirituality. His religious knowledge as well as his affiliation to the church is frequently expressed in Self-Reliance. Emerson makes various religious allusions and personal references to the church in this work. The way the essay is structured portrays that of many religious preachers during the Second Great Awakening, who talked of Heaven and Hell as well as “trumpets of Last Judgment” (Whicher 147-68). In regards to his affiliation in his work, Emerson constantly points out the flaws of society and religion for the individual. Further examining Emerson’s past and ministerial appointment, one can see he thought the church limited the ability to express his ideas. Although this may be true, the Unitarian belief of “one” came with Emerson when he separated himself from religion, only this time, instead of applying it to God, “one” was used in order to portray the “self” of the individual. This is a central motivation for Emerson’s creation of Self-Reliance. Emerson did not care of the repercussion of his work; he only cared for voicing his opinion. He no longer wanted to be silenced by societal interferences, religion and society; he wanted to elevate the status of the individual, more specifically his individuality. This was a constant struggle for Emerson, while superficially he appeared the embodiment of his beliefs, he often felt he was inadequate in fully demonstrating a self-reliant existence. This conflict is centrally reoccurring throughout this essay, he states, “The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency…” and there are many acknowledgments of his wavering personal state of being, giving the impression that he was conscious of how impossible the paradigm of the “self” actually was (Whicher 147-68).

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The self is what makes the individual, nothing more and nothing less. The genius is not made through the eyes of society but through one’s self-reliance. Society and religion are the shackles that prevent the individual from persevering to higher levels of actualization. But remembering the times he was in, Emerson combines religion along with his genius in order to fully explicate his mantra, so to speak. Man is not created, but is made and only through the belief of one’s self can man continue to progress. Ralph Waldo Emerson was leader in encouraging the importance of self, the American Spirit of independence and individuality, and the Transcendentalist movement, but his proposed ideology seems significantly outdated and vastly improbable in a post-modern society where originality is idealized, but not ever fully conceptualized. Gertrude Stein expresses this sentiment quite adamantly through this quotation, “The minute you or anybody else knows what you are you are not it, you are what you or anybody else knows you are and as everything in living is made up of finding out what you are it is extraordinarily difficult really not to know what you are and yet to be that thing.” Emerson’s idealized existence becomes a means of conformity, when every individual acknowledges their “self”or their consciousness of mind they become the very thing Emerson cautions against. Emerson, although he made a conscious effort to be untainted by conformity, is contemporarily, grouped with the other Transcendental and Romantics of the American Renaissance.


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