Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of “the self” takes an interesting twist on the concept of man and independence. His famous work, “Self-Reliance” which was written in 1841 summed up his transcendental view on what is best for man with emphasis on man’s independence and self-reliance (Buell). In essence, Emerson’s transcendental view is that for man to fulfill his true functions and project his best ‘self’, he has to be truly independent and self-reliant. The basic premise of Emerson when he wrote “Self-Reliance” was based on his experiences with regard to how political groups and organized religion led to the corruption of the purity of man. Hence, he asserted that it would be best for man to trust himself and be completely reliant on God, the Divine Providence, who has empowered man with every power to think and act upon the life and the position that was given upon him (Buell).
Ralph Emerson was able to write numerous essays and journals which reflected his views on transcendentalism. Unfortunately, many critics negatively took Emerson’s advocacy on non-conformity with the patterns of the world especially on religion and politics (Richardson). For Emerson, there is a need for every individual to as much as possible avoid patterns of conformity which often leads to false consistency, neediness and dependence on the wrong concepts and principles of humanity (Richardson). Instead, Emerson urged the people to know themselves, trust themselves and follow their own ideas and instincts by becoming completely self-reliant and independent. Nevertheless, Emerson also balanced out his concept of self-reliance as a beginning point for change and not an ultimate goal and end in itself (Richardson).
Emerson’s Concept of “The Self”
The concept of “the self” as introduced by Ralph Waldo Emerson was undoubtedly a complicated one. In the first paragraph of his essay, Emerson asserted:
“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” (Emerson, Ralph Waldo).
In this paragraph, Emerson emphasized the idea that man needs to believe in his own thoughts as well as believe in his own heart as what may be instilled in one’s hidden thoughts is simply true for the rest of the other people. In stating this idea, Emerson was trying to pinpoint the importance of the people to trust themselves. Since this essay was written in the midst of Emerson’s personal witnessing of the conformity of men on the patterns of the world to the point of them being dictated, controlled and somewhat manipulated by other people and the societal system, Emerson called out on the people to begin trusting themselves again and begin listening to what their hearts are saying. For him, it is brilliance to go back to what a man’s innermost heart dictates as the heart was given for this very purpose. Emerson moved on to stating…
“Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost” (Emerson, Ralph Waldo).
In this sentence, Emerson encourages men to speak up and voice out their hidden convictions and beliefs. He believes that when men know how to let their voices be heard, then that which is hidden becomes exposed and that which is stored from their inmost being ultimately comes true. In that same paragraph, Emerson also drove his point that man often has many rejected thoughts which result from his lack of effort to listen and see through what his inner heart and thought is dictating. In the succeeding paragraphs, Emerson also emphasized his belief that man needs to take himself and accept himself for who he is, for better or for worse, as he stated “envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide” (Emerson, Ralph Waldo).
For Emerson, self-acceptance is very important as in every man, there is power that resides from within him. There is no other person who can discover this immense power inherent within every man’s nature apart from the person himself. Emerson also strongly argued that the lack of man’s ability to try and discover the immense power and potential residing within him is an act of cowardice. He stated “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards” (Emerson, Ralph Waldo). For Emerson, every person is a living representation of the Divine Being, God, who has imparted on man his own power, nature, and ability.
Interestingly, Emerson also regarded the youth as forceful beings who possess the capacity and power to make their voices heard. As he stated “Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me. Hark! In the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary” (Emerson, Ralph Waldo). In a way, he implied that even the younger people have the capacity to bravely speak up and express themselves as a manifestation of their self-knowledge and acceptance of who they are and what they can do.
Apart from trusting one’s self, Emerson also made a very important point in stating that man needs to be a nonconformist. As Emerson stated “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (Emerson, Ralph Waldo). Emerson believed in the divine law to which the concepts of good and bad rely upon but did not accept old doctrines and traditions of the church and those imposed upon by the society as he found them limiting, inconsistent and in most instances contradictory to the real essence of man being given by God the power to handle his life as well as freely think and act as himself.
It is in this aspect that Emerson implied another aspect of the self-reliance and independence that he has been advocating from the very beginning of his essay. He basically encourages men to be completely ‘independent’ on themselves by having the ability to discover themselves, listen to their heart, expose their hidden thoughts and voice out their convictions. His idea of the self is therefore accepting and embracing the divine nature imparted to man by God, thinking and acting freely based on how God designed man to be. On the other hand, this concept of self-reliance is also limited in the sense that while Emerson advocates non-conformity to the standards and laws set by men, Emerson also emphasized the need for men to conform and submit to the divine law which originally set and dictated the concept of what is good and the bad.
Moreover, Emerson asserted that what is more important is not simply accepting and trusting one’s self but also embracing his so-called same transcendent destiny. As he stated “And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort and advancing on Chaos and the Dark” (Emerson, Ralph Waldo). This means that all men are being called by God to display their power and ability not to earn greatness but to fulfill a specific purpose.
To conclude, Emerson’s concept of the self is anchored on the concepts of self-reliance and independence from the conformity and standards set and imposed by the society and by men. For Emerson, self-reliance is discovering, accepting, and trusting one’s self and at the same time becoming completely reliant and dependent on God, the Divine Providence who has endowed on man his inherent power and ability from within his nature.
Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self-Reliance. Norton, 1841.
Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. University of California Press, 1995.