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.

In a Grain of Sand

Although Emerson’s essay “Nature” seems somewhat formal and stilted when seen in the light of Thoreau’s masterpiece Walden Pond, it is a remarkable document in and of itself and reveals the importance of “Nature” in transcendentalism. Emerson begins with the simple assertion that beautiful, natural places heal a man and make him feel better and, at their best, such places seem like sacred places. He then goes on to suggest that great man-made places are great because they integrate nature into those places. The great works of the mind, literature, poetry, and science, are also really a tribute to nature. Over time, however, man has fallen while nature, in contrast, still seems whole. Emerson argues, though, that man and nature are inseparable for “man carries the world in his head.” It is because we have lost sight of our relationship to nature that we come to identify ourselves with our thought and overestimate that thought. According to Emerson, the only way to recover our true selves, and our true greatness, is to rediscover our identity with nature and to once again feel nature running through us.

In the 1850’s, as today, men, particularly men who live in cities, seem to seek out nature as an escape from city life:

The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her.

It seems a little amazing that people in the 1850’s were doing exactly the same thing people are doing today, except that today there are so many people trying to escape to nature that it has become nearly impossible to escape man and his civilization.

Emerson argues, though, that you do not have to truly escape the civilized world to find nature’s sanctuary:

It seems as if the day was not wholly profane, in which we have given heed to some natural object. The fall of snowflakes in a still air, preserving to each crystal its perfect form; the blowing of sleet over a wide sheet of water, and over plains, the waving rye-field, the mimic waving of acres of houstonia, whose innumerable florets whiten and ripple before the eye; the reflections of trees and flowers in glassy lakes; the musical steaming odorous south wind, which converts all trees to windharps; the crackling and spurting of hemlock in the flames; or of pine logs, which yield glory to the walls and faces in the sittingroom, — these are the music and pictures of the most ancient religion.

I suspect that this is the very reason you find so many web sites that include a picture of a flower that has just begun to bloom. People have rediscovered nature’s beauty in their own yard. It may not be a total escape to a beautiful location, but it connects us with “the most ancient religion.”

In fact, our attempts to create beautiful yards, temporary sanctuaries from work and the craziness of the city, are really little more than attempts to tap into this ancient knowledge:

He who knows the most, he who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man. Only as far as the masters of the world have called in nature to their aid, can they reach the height of magnificence. This is the meaning of their hanging-gardens, villas, garden-houses, islands, parks, and preserves, to back their faulty personality with these strong accessories.

Many cultures, particularly those cultures where land has been at a premium of taken the art of gardening to new heights. For me, the art reached its peak in the Japanese Gardens.

Though Emerson seems to be exaggerating for rhetorical effect, he argues that:

Literature, poetry, science, are the homage of man to this unfathomed secret, concerning which no sane man can affect an indifference or incuriosity. Nature is loved by what is best in us.

While this is an obvious overgeneralization, the great Romantic literature of the time certainly took this advice to heart. For that matter, Romantic literature is probably the only literature that really interests me, so maybe Emerson isn’t exaggerating too much.

Emerson argues that because man has fallen nature seems so grand to us.

Man is fallen; nature is erect, and serves as a differential thermometer, detecting the presence or absence of the divine sentiment in man. By fault of our dulness and selfishness, we are looking up to nature, but when we are convalescent, nature will look up to us. We see the foaming brook with compunction: if our own life flowed with the right energy, we should shame the brook. The stream of zeal sparkles with real fire, and not with reflex rays of sun and moon

This quotation also suggests that when we rediscover the “nature” within us we will be as grand as nature itself. This is probably the most radical idea in the essay: that nature and man are one, that any division is merely a division of a mind run astray. Seen in light of later essays, this sense of nature suggests the Oversoul that is the essence of all things.

Emerson, like Blake, feels the world is whole, that it is possible to see everything in its parts

If we had eyes to see it, a bit of stone from the city wall would certify us of the necessity that man must exist, as readily as the city. That identity makes us all one, and reduces to nothing great intervals on our customary scale. We talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not also natural. The smoothest curled courtier in the boudoirs of a palace has an animal nature, rude and aboriginal as a white bear, omnipotent to its own ends, and is directly related, there amid essences and billetsdoux, to Himmaleh mountain-chains, and the axis of the globe.

For the poet, this is virtually the same as Einstein’s Unified Field Theory, the one Einstein apparently was unable to find. Of course, I think Blake has expressed the same idea more succinctly:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

Emerson extends this idea, suggesting that all knowledge of the world first comes from inside man’s head:

Man carries the world in his head, the whole astronomy and chemistry suspended in a thought. Because the history of nature is charactered in his brain, therefore is he the prophet and discoverer of her secrets. Every known fact in natural science was divined by the presentiment of somebody, before it was actually verified. A man does not tie his shoe without recognising laws which bind the farthest regions of nature: moon, plant, gas, crystal, are concrete geometry and numbers.

I must admit, though, that the scientist in me still has a hard time accepting this view of reality. I, like most people, still have the feeling that there is an objective, physical world outside of us that operates according to the laws of physics, though, of course, we are both subject to the same laws.

If Emerson asserts that man is one with nature and that both are perfect, then he has to account for how man has lost the ability to recognize this:

But the craft with which the world is made, runs also into the mind and character of men. No man is quite sane; each has a vein of folly in his composition, a slight determination of blood to the head, to make sure of holding him hard to some one point which nature had taken to heart.


Each prophet comes presently to identify himself with his thought, and to esteem his hat and shoes sacred.

In essence, man has cut himself off from nature through his thinking. Instead of being one with nature, man contemplates nature as something separate, something outside of himself. The more man thinks about it, the more cut off he feels. And, still, we sit at our computers writing about nature instead of going outside to work in the garden.

If we are foolish to fight with nature or to attempt measure our strength against her, we may well feel alienated. In such a world we may feel like those modern artists whose philosophy was ironically labeled “Naturalism.” These artists felt man was merely a victim of natural forces over which he had little or no control. In a time of despair, it’s easy enough to adopt such a philosophy:

We cannot bandy words with nature, or deal with her as we deal with persons. If we measure our individual forces against hers, we may easily feel as if we were the sport of an insuperable destiny. But if, instead of identifying ourselves with the work, we feel that the soul of the workman streams through us, we shall find the peace of the morning dwelling first in our hearts, and the fathomless powers of gravity and chemistry, and, over them, of life, preexisting within us in their highest form.

Emerson argues that the only way to avoid feeling like a victim of “destiny” is to re-identify with the forces of nature and to realize they are part of us. By doing so we can overcome our feelings of helplessness:

After every foolish day we sleep off the fumes and furies of its hours; and though we are always engaged with particulars, and often enslaved to them, we bring with us to every experiment the innate universal laws. These, while they exist in the mind as ideas, stand around us in nature forever embodied, a present sanity to expose and cure the insanity of men.

In the end Emerson seems to come full circle, arguing that, though it is our thinking that cuts us off from nature, “nature is the incarnation of a thought:”

The reality is more excellent than the report. Here is no ruin, no discontinuity, no spent ball. The divine circulations never rest nor linger. Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought.

Nature, in essence, isn’t a thing, but, like thought, is an essence. The “things” of the world are “mind precipitated.”

Sounding a little like a Zen priest, Emerson advises:

Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time.

In other words, Be here, Be now. Live the moment, and you shall have no need of further wisdom.