A Loophole You Could Drive a Coal Truck Through

Even though I've had a hard time getting through Thomas Merton's poetry, I haven't been totally loafing around here. Between coloring Easter eggs with Gavin and his mom and walking with Leslie and Kel, I still managed to write an environmental article on the Bush administration's attempts to revise the Clean Water Act so that mining companies can mine coal more cheaply.

Uses of Great Men

Sometimes I suspect that education is wasted on young people. How many young people really need to read an idealist like Emerson, for goodness sakes? The young, by their very nature, tend to be optimistic and idealistic. How come there isn’t a course that requires those over 50 to read Emerson? I’m sure most adults have long since forgotten what he wrote, and, even worse, have lost the last shreds of their idealism.

If we did so, perhaps we would learn to make use of Emerson some of the ways he suggests we should make use of great men in his essay “Uses of Great Mean.” If so, we would learn that the world is a better place because of him:

The world is upheld by the veracity of good men: they make the earth wholesome. They who lived with them found life glad and nutritious. Life is sweet and tolerable only in our belief in such society; and, actually or ideally, we manage to live with superiors.

Whether or not we agree with everything that Emerson says, and I’m not sure I do, most people would agree that he is seeking truth and that our world would be a much better place if everyone tried as hard as he did to make it a better place.

Like many people, I see the world differently after I read Emerson:

Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds. Each man seeks those of different quality from his own, and such as are good of their kind; that is, he seeks other men, and the otherest. The stronger the nature, the more it is reactive. Let us have the quality pure. … I count him a great man who inhabits a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty; he has but to open his eyes to see things in a true light and in large relations, whilst they must make painful corrections and keep a vigilant eye on many sources of error.

When I first read Emerson many years ago, I thought that he must have read my mind before he wrote his essays. He put into words thoughts I had held for many years but had never articulated. Coming back to him some thirty years later, once again I feel like I have rediscovered parts of myself that have gotten buried in time’s detritus. He is, at least for me, a great writer, and I am a better person for having read him.

As Emerson points out in his essay, our society is built on the great men of the past:

Well, in good faith, we are multiplied by our proxies. How easily we adopt their labors! Every ship that comes to America got its chart from Columbus. Every novel is a debtor to Homer. Every carpenter who shaves with a fore-plane borrows the genius of a forgotten inventor. Life is girt all round with a zodiac of sciences, the contributions of men who have perished to add their point of light to our sky.

We all realize that modern industry constantly reinvents itself based on the new ideas of innovators. It’s much easier to forget that our ideas are built on the top of other’s ideas, that we are not the same people are parents were.

Of course really great men become classics:

We cannot read Plutarch without a tingling of the blood; and I accept the saying of the Chinese Mencius: "A sage is the instructor of a hundred ages. When the manners of Loo are heard of, the stupid become intelligent, and the wavering, determined."

Authors who have died long before we were born affect us as much, or more, than contemporary teachers. Who has ever read Homer’s Odysseus without being inspired to start his own journey in life?

We are drawn to those who reveal the truths we need as surely as we are drawn to the people we love:

… learn to choose men by their truest marks, taught, with Plato, "to choose those who can, without aid from the eyes or any other sense, proceed to truth and to being." Foremost among these activities are the summersaults, spells and resurrections wrought by the imagination. ... We are as elastic as the gas of gunpowder, and a sentence in a book, or a word dropped in conversation, sets free our fancy, and instantly our heads are bathed with galaxies, and our feet tread the floor of the Pit. And this benefit is real because we are entitled to these enlargements, and once having passed the bounds shall never again be quite the miserable pedants we were.

Once exposed to a new idea, we can never quite forget. I doubt that anyone who experienced the Vietnam war could ever see the world quite the same after reading Catch-22. Heller puts into words what many of us thought after being exposed to the insanity of combat.

One of the main reasons we are attracted to great men is that they make our own thoughts great:

We love to associate with heroic persons, since our receptivity is unlimited; and, with the great, our thoughts and manners easily become great. We are all wise in capacity, though so few in energy. There needs but one wise man in a company and all are wise, so rapid is the contagion.

One of the surest signs of a great thinker is when a “school” grows around him, when his genius attracts and inspires those of equal talent. The most famous American “teacher” like this is Emerson himself, and the transcendental movement that surrounded him. Emerson’s ideas inspired artists as diverse as Thoreau, Whitman, and Dickinson, all of whom managed to maintain their own identity.

Emerson, who emphasizes the importance of self-reliance, is profoundly aware of the danger of relying too heavily on anyone else’s ideas:

True genius will not impoverish, but will liberate, and add new senses. If a wise man should appear in our village he would create, in those who conversed with him, a new consciousness of wealth, by opening their eyes to unobserved advantages; he would establish a sense of immovable equality, calm us with assurances that we could not be cheated; as every one would discern the checks and guaranties of condition. The rich would see their mistakes and poverty, the poor their escapes and their resources.

Great writers, like Emerson himself, do not make us less in control of our destiny but, instead, give us new control over what we do and what we think. Readers leave Emerson not just with an awareness of his genius, but with an awareness of their own potential for genius.

The major reason Emerson is not worried about the power of great minds, though, is that it is not the person himself who has the power, but, rather, the idea that provides him with his appeal:

… against the best there is a finer remedy. The power which they communicate is not theirs. When we are exalted by ideas, we do not owe this to Plato, but to the idea, to which also Plato was debtor.

It is not Plato, per se, that we carry with us the rest of our lives, but, rather, his concept of ideals, or of forms. If perhaps we rediscover the same idea in a study of archetypes, we do not immediately think of Plato, but, rather, his theory of forms.

In everyday life we tend to learn from our contemporaries:

We learn of our contemporaries what they know without effort, and almost through the pores of the skin. We catch it by sympathy, or as a wife arrives at the intellectual and moral elevations of her husband.

And, dear reader, lest we forget that Emerson, too, had feet of clay, and learned from his contemporaries we leave the exact quotation intact. The danger of learning just from contemporaries is that you will not go beyond them:

But we stop where they stop. Very hardly can we take another step. The great, or such as hold of nature and transcend fashions by their fidelity to universal ideas, are saviors from these federal errors and defend us from our contemporaries. They are the exceptions which we want, where all grows like. A foreign greatness is the antidote for cabalism.

One of many advantages of books, as opposed to other more recent forms of media, is that they draw from a much wider range of time and place. Our exposure to a world literature makes it difficult to hold on to a parochial view of life.

If we only listen to our contemporaries, it is too easy to come under one man’s sway. Reading widely makes it highly unlikely that your ideas will be dominated by just one man:

But a new danger appears in the excess of influence of the great man. His attractions warp us from our place. We have become underlings and intellectual suicides. Ah! yonder in the horizon is our help;- other great men, new qualities, counterweights and checks on each other. … We balance one man with his opposite, and the health of the state depends on the see-saw.

Plato’s arguments seem impeccable until we read Aristotle’s arguments. Romantic novels like The Three Musketeers have a particular appeal until you read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Even in a discussion of great men, Emerson remains true to his ideal of self-reliance and the worth of each and every person:

…all are teachers and pupils in turn? We are equally served by receiving and by imparting. Men who know the same things are not long the best company for each other. … As to what we call the masses, and common men,- there are no common men. All men are at last of a size; and true art is only possible on the conviction that every talent has its apotheosis somewhere. Fair play and an open field and freshest laurels to all who have won them!

The goal of learning, despite what some teachers may say, is not to parrot back the ideas of others, but, instead, to realize your full potential by developing your own talent.

If we are attain our full potential and avoid the danger of relying too heavily on the thinking of another, we must go beyond our teachers, no matter how great they are:

We have never come at the true and best benefit of any genius so long as we believe him an original force. In the moment when he ceases to help us as a cause, he begins to help us more as an effect. Then he appears as an exponent of a vaster mind and will. The opaque self becomes transparent with the light of the First Cause.

In essence, Emerson is urging the reader not to worship the individual but to see these geniuses merely as part of that great Oversoul that we are all part of.

In the end, Emerson argues that:

Yet, within the limits of human education and agency, we may say great men exist that there may be greater men. The destiny of organized nature is amelioration, and who can tell its limits? It is for man to tame the chaos; on every side, whilst he lives, to scatter the seeds of science and of song, that climate, corn, animals, men, may be milder, and the germs of love and benefit may be multiplied.

Emerson undoubtedly realizes that individuals are not going to immediately attain enlightenment, but he does hope that through the insights and inspiration provided by great men, the world can gradually improve and get better.

The American Scholar, Part II

In the second half of “The American Scholar” Emerson emphasizes the importance of physical labor to the scholar:

When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

The apparent emphasis here is on being in touch with the world. Although I’m not entirely sure I understand the reasons for this emphasis on action in America, it is a pragmatism that seems to be characteristic of America.

While Emerson states that action is secondary to the scholar, he argues that it is also vital because it puts the scholar back in touch with all men, in touch with mankind, if you will:

Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

This emphasis on action certainly seems to foreshadow the Pragmatism later made famous by Charles Pierce and William James. According to the World Book encyclopedia that came with my new Apple iBook, “James's interpretation of pragmatism stated that the meaning of an abstract idea is determined by the idea's effects on one who believes it. James wrote that a true idea is one that can be verified, that ‘works,’ and that satisfies. According to this concept, truth is changeable. Because a true idea is one that agrees with reality, James concluded that we can make ideas true by our actions and change the world in which we live.” While I’m not sure that Emerson, who seems more Platonic than this, would subscribe to this concept of a “true” idea, Pragmatism certainly seems to describe what he has in mind when he talks about the necessity of the scholar being actively involved in life.

Disregarding, for the moment, that truism that “there’s no fool like an old fool,” hopefully it goes without saying that for most people the longer they live the wiser they become. By encountering problems the scholar extends his understanding of life. Problems generate wisdom and the ability to articulate these problems successfully:

So much only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion. I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructers in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power.

While I’m into preserving wilderness, not vanquishing and planting it, it’s hard not to agree that adversity can make a man wiser. Milton says in Areopagitica, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.” It seems equally hard to praise an idea that has not been tested in the real world.

To get the most out of our wisdom we must also apply it:

Of course, he who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom.

It’s certainly not enough to simply have an idea. We must live by our ideas and promote them if they are to have any real worth. Of what value is “freedom” if we choose to live like slaves or are forced to submit to other’s whims? It’s only when such an idea is put to the test, when, for instance, we allow those we disagree with to express their ideas publicly that we can test the worth of such a concept. When we can actually see that the best ideas emerge from the free exchange of ideas, then we see the true worth of freedom, and not until.

Emerson argues that thinking and acting interact with each other, reinforcing each other:

The mind now thinks; now acts; and each fit reproduces the other. When the artist has exhausted his materials, when the fancy no longer paints, when thoughts are no longer apprehended, and books are a weariness, -- he has always the resource to live. Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary.

Practicing our ideas produces character, and who would argue that character is not higher than intellect? If we live a book, then that book is part of us long after we have read it.

Of course, the scholar is to do more than just apply his ideas himself

The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.

At times this “scholar” seems more like a minister than what we generally call a “scholar:”

He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world's eye. He is the world's heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.

Personally, I would hope that the true scholar would also be to point out dangerous trends in society, not just communicate “heroic sentiments” or “melodious verse.”

Ironically, since he puts so much emphasis on working with others, Emerson argues that the scholar must trust his own insights and, most of all, be true to himself:

In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach; and bide his own time, -- happy enough, if he can satisfy himself alone, that this day he has seen something truly. Success treads on every right step. For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks. He then learns, that in going down into the secrets of his own mind, he has descended into the secrets of all minds.

Emerson feels that when the scholar explores himself, when he searches the depths of his soul he also explores all men, for, at the deepest level all people share the Oversoul.

Finding himself at the beginning of a literary movement that had shifted focus from tragedy focused on a noble hero to a celebration of the common man, Emerson sees hope in this new movement:

One of these signs is the fact, that the same movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized.

To me, this emphasizes Emerson’s attempts to balance individualism with democracy. Of course, if you really believe in an Oversoul and the sacredness of the individual, there is bound to be a shift in literature.

Part of this emphasis on the individual are reflected in America’s political movement:

Another sign of our times, also marked by an analogous political movement, is, the new importance given to the single person. Every thing that tends to insulate the individual, -- to surround him with barriers of natural respect, so that each man shall feel the world is his, and man shall treat with man as a sovereign state with a sovereign state; -- tends to true union as well as greatness.

Of course this political movement is little more than a reaffirmation of the Bill of Rights, but it also ties in neatly with the transcendentalist’s emphasis on individuality.

Emerson feels that the job of celebrating the common man lies with the American scholar:

…this confidence in the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar

Little wonder that Emerson celebrated Whitman as the American Scholar with the publication of Song of Myself, for Whitman brilliantly celebrated both himself and the common man.

Most of all the American Scholar, though, will find himself through Nature:

He shall see, that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments. So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess. And, in fine, the ancient precept, "Know thyself," and the modern precept, "Study nature," become at last one maxim.

Emerson’s greatest disciple, Thoreau, of course went on to do this better than anyone in American history, discovering himself in his hermitage on Walden Pond.

If Emerson isn't himself America's greatest scholar, he certainly inspired someone who became America's greatest scholar.

The American Scholar, Part I

Much of what Emerson says in “The American Scholar” seems even more relevant today than it did when it was written nearly a hundred and fifty years ago for society has become increasingly segmented, increasingly specialized, over time. The fable he begins this address with suggests that the individual in order to possess “himself” and to sustain society must return to embrace all other laborers. Although this may sound socialistic, it actually lies at the heart of “democracy,” for true democracy balances the life of the individual against the well-being of the society. Until the two are integrated, and in my opinion the transcendentalists came as close as anyone to balancing these two needs, it’s impossible to have a successful society:

The fable implies, that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, -- a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Emerson seems to be suggesting a virtual Renaissance Man here, someone like Da Vinci who participated in science and art at elite levels. Of course, the sheer amount of knowledge has increased so greatly over the centuries that it is doubtful there will ever be another true Da Vinci, but that does not mean that we do not need specialists who are able to see the “whole picture.” As the Romantics clearly saw, scientists who could only see their specialty presented a clear danger to society.

Emerson clearly foresaw the dangers of an academic elite that retreated to their ivory towers to contemplate their navel and the navel of other scholars.

In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking.

If, indeed, because of the demands of specialization, society is going to depend on academia to understand and interpret the world, then it is imperative that the academics also understand and participate in the world outside of academia. If this was dangerous in Emerson’s time, think how much more dangerous it is today with the potential, and potential danger, of genetics, bio-chemistry, physics, etc. Let us hope that the hand on the rudder of scientific development is not the hand of some myopic scholar who has lost sight of society’s overall needs because of an overindulgence in academic minutiae.

In fact, it would seem to me that academic blogs would be a perfect way for scholars to disseminate their ideas to a broader public and, in turn, receive feedback from those outside of academic circles.

Emerson also argues that:

Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.

Of course, this is eminently clear in the scientific fields, particularly in fields like computer development. While perhaps it’s less clear in an area like poetics, I think it is still absolutely essential that poets, if they are going to serve their function of providing insight into human nature and our ongoing relationship with the world, continue to engage us in new ways of seeing our lives and our world. At the very least, they need to remind us what parts of the past are being lost and need to be preserved before it’s too late.

Emerson’s warning about the dangers of men devoting themselves entirely to the study of books also seems valid:

Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Chillingsworth, the cold-blooded scholar who abandons Hester for his studies and then self-righteously punishes her for abandoning him is an excellent example of this kind of individual. Unfortunately, most of us who’ve spent many years in school have also suffered under such teachers, those who can make even the best writers seem to disappear under the weight of a bookshelf of scholarly essays.

One of my greatest disappointments in college was a world-famous critic in early novels at the University of Washington whose classes I waited years to get. It turned out to be one of the worst classes I ever took. He came in, sat down, and read directly from a set of brown, dusty notes that must have been written fifty years earlier. I had trouble staying awake in that classroom and once embarrassed myself by actually snoring in class. Naturally I was embarrassed, but it was the teacher who should have been.

Little wonder the Beats gained appeal precisely because they rejected the literary control of academia. Ironically, though, many somehow ended up teaching part- time in colleges to make a living.

Luckily, teachers have not been able to destroy people’s loves of books precisely because, as Emerson’s argues, books inspire us to live fuller, more meaningful lives:

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.

Though I have never tried to live my life by any one author’s vision, books like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Ralph Ellisson’s The Invisible Man, or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 have helped me to understand my life and the lives of people around me.

Of course, another function of books is to remind us that, no matter how different the circumstances we live under, all human beings share some basic values:

There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said.

Classic works, particularly those from very different cultures, such as ancient Greek or Roman culture, also remind us that people who are live under very different conditions than we do often have the same dreams that we have. Indeed, such poetry should help to create empathy for all humans, for we all share certain aspirations, so much so that it is our very inability of fulfill those aspirations that may well define us as “human.” It is the human “race” to fulfill these dreams that creates the bonds that, in the end, create society.

Self Reliance: Part II

By now the zen of Emerson is becoming clear. Live in the present. Become enlightened. Overcome desire. There is independence in solitude. By not linking our well being to others, we come closer to self actualization.

We must go alone.

All men have my blood and I all men’s. Not for that will I adopt their petulance or folly, even to the extent of being ashamed of it. But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation.

The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act. ‘What we love that we have, but by desire we bereave ourselves of the love.’

If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and faith, let us at least resist our temptations;

I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever only rejoices me and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your own companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly but humbly and truly.

I would like the paragraph above added to the marriage ceremony. Wait, maybe I don’t need to be married!

The populace think that your rejections of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism,* and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes.

*ANTINOMIANISM -the contradiction between two statements, both apparently obtained by correct reasoning.

but I may also neglect this reflex standard and absolve me to myself. I have my own stern claims and perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices that are called duties...If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster.

The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force and do lean and beg day and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlor soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.

Let a Stoic open the resources of man and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; That a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations; that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts for himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries and customs out of the window, we pity him no more but thank and revere him.

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men.


There is prayer in the actions of men. God is in our work; therefore our actions speak to Him. Prayer that is offered to gain something for an individual--Please, God, let me win the lottery--is “vicious” because it separates us from others and sets up the dualism Emerson spoke of in “Compensation.”

Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view...But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not a unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action.


If we are reasonable human beings, listening to our intuition, we should not know discontent for we would follow a path that is correct for us. We get into trouble and become discontent only when we try to imitate others.

Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will. Regret calamities if you can thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend your own work and already the evil begins to be repaired. Out sympathy is just as base.

The secret of fortune is joy in our hands. Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man.


A creed is an imposition of one man’s thought on others which would destroy self-reliance.

As men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect...If it prove a mind of uncommon activity and power, a Locke, a Lavoisier, a Hutton, a Bentham, a Fourier, it imposes its classification on other men, and lo! a new system...Such is Calvinism, Quakerism, Swedenborgism.


The purpose of travel must be to acquire and share knowledge, not to alleviate the discontent one may feel at home. Emerson saw the root of imitation as “traveling of the mind.”

It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Traveling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans.

The wise man stays at home.

And when his necessities ...call him from his house,...he is at home still and shall make men sensible...that he goes, the missionary of wisdom and virtue.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe for the purpose of art, of study, and benevolence.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty and lose my sadness...and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from... My giant goes with me wherever I go.

Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the traveling of the mind? Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties lean, and follow the Past and the Distant. The soul created the arts wherever they have flourished.

Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.

Every great man is unique...Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakspeare. Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.

Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.


Nothing in life is all good or all bad. For advancement we pay a price.

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.

What a contrast between the self-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch, a pencil and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength.

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet...He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the Sun. Note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity, entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue...


Man has made progress in science and technology which Emerson could not consider. We have our telephones and computers, but what have these devices contributed to our sense of self? Are they only “our costumes”?

No greater men are now than ever were...Not in time is the race progressive.. Phocion, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Diogenes are great men, but they leave no class...The arts and inventions of each period are only its costume and do not invigorate men.

The harm of the improved machinery may compensate its good.

Columbus found the New World in an undecked boat.

We reckoned the improvements of the art of war among the triumphs of science, and yet Napoleon conquered Europe by the bivouac, which consisted of falling back on naked valor and disencumbering it of all aids.

And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance....They measure their esteem of each
other by what each has, and not by what each is.

It is only as a man puts off all foreign support and stands alone that I see him to be strong and to prevail.

He who knows what power is inborn, that he is weak because he has looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and, so perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, instantly rights himself.


Of course Emerson would hold no stock in fortune for it does not come from man’s work, his reliance on himself.

Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shall sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations.


Emerson wouldn’t like my attaching goal seeking to his work, but I need to know what I can expect from practicing self-reliance. Emerson answers Peace.

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

Diane McCormick

Self-Reliance: Part I

Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in a crankier voice in his essay “Self-reliance” than he did in “Compensation.” He had much to be cranky about.

He takes nineteenth century man to task, lecturing him on his reliance on the past, experts, use of charity to gain esteem in the eyes of other men, conformity, foolish consistency, prayer for personal gain, discontent, creeds, travel, progress, and fortune. Yes, dear twenty-first century reader, there is something here to make every one of us squirm.

But fortunately interspersed among the rants are ways to topple our false gods. The power is close by. All we have to do is trust ourselves.


The theme of the origin of genius begins the essay and recurs again in later pages. Man has the root of genius if he trusts his thought and believes it is shared by others. Emerson would like men and women to express their thought and not passively share the opinion of others. We may find our thoughts are not only original but also universal. This and eschewing envy and imitation is the genius within.

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.

Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

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 or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best;

Trust thyself.

The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.

Who so would be a man, must be a nonconformist... Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.


Here Emerson writes as though he has been asked for a donation one too many times. For those with whom he shares a “spiritual affinity” he would give all, but he begrudges “alms to sots...and [to] the thousand-fold Relief Societies.” I know if Emerson were here he could explain to me why he separates men and women into these two groups. This bothered me forty years ago for written in the margin of my college text I am reading again is the note “If all are governed by the over soul, are not all men “mine”?

Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, 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. This is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meetinghouses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots, and the thousand-fold 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.

It is the harder because you will always find those who think
they know what is your duty better than you know it. 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.

Indeed it does take a great man or woman “to keep with perfect sweetness the “independence of solitude” in a world of getting and spending, to live one’s life according to one’s own chart which may run counter to society’s dictates.

But do your work, and I shall know you.


A theme constant in Emerson’s writing is his urgings to avoid conformity. He would have all men think for themselves, trust the genius within, rely on the self.

A man must consider what a blind-man’s-buff is the game
of conformity.

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.

But being an original carries a price. Political parties, unions, churches, indeed all of society’s institutions want their members to conform to their rules and philosophies. Schools especially want to fit students into the mold of obedient citizen. Independent thinkers are suspect and end up attending Reed.


The expression of a thought as it applies in the present without evaluating its consistency with past thought is the mark of the self-reliant man.

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency.

It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored
by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

Speak what you think now.

To be great is to be misunderstood.

The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.


For Emerson spontaneity or instinct is the source of genius and virtue, life emanating from the aboriginal Self. Intuition is the primary wisdom. To access this primary wisdom man must trust his own instincts.

When private men shall act with original views, the luster will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen.

What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?... The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions (instructions).

For the sense of being which in calm hours arises, we know not how, in the souls, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. We first share the life by which things exist and afterwards see them as appearance in nature and forget that we have shared their cause.

We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams.

The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps. It must be that when God speaketh he should communicate, not one thing, but all things;

Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,--means, teachers, texts, temples fall;

Place trust in the divine which is in all of us and there will be no need for the teachings of others.

If man trusts the divine within himself, he has no need for the teachings of the sages of the past. Man can be spontaneous, following his instincts.

Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light: where it is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and injury if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day.

[Man] cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of grandames and tutors...


One’s intuition comes from the self and if recognized, keeps us living in the present, the greatest source of the serenity we seek.

When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;--the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience. You take the way from man, not to man. All persons that ever existed are its forgotten ministers. Fear and hope are alike beneath it...This which I think and feel underlie my present, and what is called life and what is called death.

Life only avails, not the having lived.

Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself.

Emerson probably wrote more aphorisms than anyone since Alexander Pope.

Diane McCormick

Let the Force Be with You

About the time I thought I had Emerson figured out, I started reading “Experience” and decided I will have to dig a little deeper before I can make that claim. Compared to the anthologized works of Emerson I’ve been exposed to in the past, “Experience” seems much moodier and more pessimistic. Looking back, it adds new dimensions and depth to his more famous essays. I’m not quite ready to claim that I thoroughly understand this essay, especially since I’m reading it through my earlier misconceptions about Emerson, you know those ones promoted by your ex-high school teachers and ex-college professors.

[Luckily, this is a blog and I can come back and change anything I’ve written here any time I want, even if Google doesn’t realize that. Actually, I do that rather regularly, correcting typos and grammatical errors when I happen to re-read something I’ve written earlier. I’m still with Emerson when he says, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” If you were wrong the first time, you were wrong. Fix it if you can, get over it if you can’t, and move on.]

Emerson begins his essay rather uncharacteristically, arguing that we cannot perceive reality:

Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.

Not only do we lack perception, we often feel drained and lacking energy:

Ah that our Genius were a little more of a genius! We are like millers on the lower levels of a stream, when the factories above them have exhausted the water. We too fancy that the upper people must have raised their dams.

Our life generally seems meaningless:

All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that 'tis *wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue.

How ironic that the very escape from ordinariness confirms how boring and ordinary are everyday life is.

It seems truly extraordinary that someone who kept extensive journals of his life would say, “Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it.” If this genius shuns to record his life, what the heck are we doing trying to blog every day? Still, Emerson seems right on when he says:

So much of our time is preparation, so much is routine, and so much retrospect, that the pith of each man's genius contracts itself to a very few hours.

In fact, original insights are damned hard to come by; most of us spend our lives rehashing the ideas of others and trying to make them our own.

The depth of Emerson’s emptiness is conveyed when he talks about his hope that suffering and death can somehow give meaning to his life:

There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.

Most poignant of all is his admission that even the death of his young son has failed to make his life seem real:

Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, -- no more. I cannot get it nearer to me.

The full depth of his despair is seen when he says, “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.” If sorrow cannot teach us “reality,” what can? “Nothing is left us now but death. We look to that with a grim satisfaction, saying, there at least is reality that will not dodge us.” Suddenly, Emerson begins to sound more like a modern-day existentialist rather than a Platonic Idealist.

He goes on to argue that our perception of reality is inevitably clouded by our temperament, and we are unable to perceive any true “reality:”

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.

When we are happy and good fortune shines on us, the Gods are wise and just. When bad luck befalls us, the Gods are arbitrary and fickle. Of course, our “moods” are not totally arbitrary; they are greatly affected by our own temperament:

Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung. Of what use is fortune or talent to a cold and defective nature?


Temperament also enters fully into the system of illusions, and shuts us in a prison of glass which we cannot see. There is an optical illusion about every person we meet.

If we are foolish enough to let misfortune sour us on life, then how can we ever hope to see anything but misery in life?

For Emerson, not surprisingly, the greatest mistake is to fall into the illusion of science:

I knew a witty physician who found theology in the biliary duct, and used to affirm that if there was disease in the liver, the man became a Calvinist, and if that organ was sound, he became a Unitarian. Very mortifying is the reluctant experience that some unfriendly excess or imbecility neutralizes the promise of genius.

Our witty physician sounds like modern psychologists, doesn’t he? No wonder modern readers under the sway of the physical sciences dismiss Emerson out of hand:

I see not, if one be once caught in this trap of so-called sciences, any escape for the man from the links of the chain of physical necessity. Given such an embryo, such a history must follow. On this platform, one lives in a sty of sensualism, and would soon come to suicide.

The reality, of course, is that physicians, if they are to have a personal life, have to live with the dilemma of viewing their patients as bio-mechanical devices to be treated as necessary while relating to families and friends on an entirely different level.

Amidst such despair, though, Emerson still sees hope in both the intellect and the heart. When we turn to these “higher powers” we awake from our nightmare:

But it is impossible that the creative power should exclude itself. Into every intelligence there is a door which is never closed, through which the creator passes. The intellect, seeker of absolute truth, or the heart, lover of absolute good, intervenes for our succor, and at one whisper of these high powers, we awake from ineffectual struggles with this nightmare. We hurl it into its own hell, and cannot again contract ourselves to so base a state.

Even when inspired by intellect or heart, it is no easy matter to see behind the illusion to reality:

Our love of the real draws us to permanence, but health of body consists in circulation, and sanity of mind in variety or facility of association. We need change of objects. Dedication to one thought is quickly odious.

The implication here is that there is no absolute Truth, truth is constantly changing; however, the reference seems ambivalent enough that he may be suggesting, instead, that Truth is difficult to find because it is static and our natural tendency is to be on the move.

In another relatively unusual statement for someone known for emphasizing individuality, Emerson says it takes the whole society and an understanding of failure and follies to find reality:

Of course, it needs the whole society, to give the symmetry we seek. The parti-colored wheel must revolve very fast to appear white. Something is learned too by conversing with so much folly and defect. In fine, whoever loses, we are always of the gaining party. Divinity is behind our failures and follies also.

Neither is it exactly clear what Emerson means by “dialectics” in the following:

Life is not dialectics. We, I think, in these times, have had lessons enough of the futility of criticism. Our young people have thought and written much on labor and reform, and for all that they have written, neither the world nor themselves have got on a step. Intellectual tasting of life will not supersede muscular activity. If a man should consider the nicety of the passage of a piece of bread down his throat, he would starve.

However, Emerson seems to imply that there has been enough talking about truth. What is required now is action. Action, muscular activity, not talking is the answer he suggests here:

There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection. The whole frame of things preaches indifferency. Do not craze yourself with thinking, but go about your business anywhere. Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. Its chief good is for well-mixed people who can enjoy what they find, without question.

Although this seems like unusual advice for a man devoted to thinking about life, it is what he clearly implies here. Strange word, “sturdy.” Well-mixed people? Well-mixed in what sense?

More strange terms appear in the following quotation:

We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them. Under the oldest mouldiest conventions, a man of native force prospers just as well as in the newest world, and that by skill of handling and treatment. He can take hold anywhere. Life itself is a mixture of power and form, and will not bear the least excess of either. To finish the moment, to find the journey's end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.

and later

Human life is made up of the two elements, power and form, and the proportion must be invariably kept, if we would have it sweet and sound. Each of these elements in excess makes a mischief as hurtful as its defect.

It’s not all clear what Emerson means by “power and form” here, nor do I remember the terms appearing in other essays I’ve read so far. However, “native force” in this context seems to suggest some kind of innate life force, especially considering his advice about not thinking too much. (Critic Newton Arvin describes power as, “The fact of personal force, of superior vitality, of great individual energy aroused such enthusiasm in him that he was willing to make allowances for the irregularities to which these qualities might conduce.”) Form is obviously the opposing force to “power,” but it’s still not clear to me exactly what it means.

Clearly, Emerson is moving toward an active rather than meditative view of life. Happiness, escape from life’s meaninglessness, comes from tapping into the vital force:

I would gladly be moral, and keep due metes and bounds, which I dearly love, and allow the most to the will of man, but I have set my heart on honesty in this chapter, and I can see nothing at last, in success or failure, than more or less of vital force supplied from the Eternal.

Success or failure has less to do with morality or conformity than with the ability to tap into the vital force of the Eternal.

According to Emerson, this is the same force that is identified by Mencius:

The Chinese Mencius has not been the least successful in his generalization. "I fully understand language," he said, "and nourish well my vast-flowing vigor." -- "I beg to ask what you call vast-flowing vigor?" -- said his companion. "The explanation," replied Mencius, "is difficult. This vigor is supremely great, and in the highest degree unbending. Nourish it correctly, and do it no injury, and it will fill up the vacancy between heaven and earth. This vigor accords with and assists justice and reason, and leaves no hunger." -- In our more correct writing, we give to this generalization the name of Being, and thereby confess that we have arrived as far as we can go.

In summary, Emerson argues that we can never see reality because of our limitations, our distorting lenses, but if we tap into the power of life we can overcome these limitations and be happy:

It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects. Once we lived in what we saw; now, the rapaciousness of this new power, which threatens to absorb all things, engages us.

We cannot worry about time and how long we have felt defeated and disillusioned. In a moment of solitude we can discover the secret power that lies within each of us and transform our life:

Patience and patience, we shall win at the last. We must be very suspicious of the deceptions of the element of time. It takes a good deal of time to eat or to sleep, or to earn a hundred dollars, and a very little time to entertain a hope and an insight which becomes the light of our life. We dress our garden, eat our dinners, discuss the household with our wives, and these things make no impression, are forgotten next week; but in the solitude to which every man is always returning, he has a sanity and revelations, which in his passage into new worlds he will carry with him. Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart! -- it seems to say, -- there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.