Taking a practical and democratic, yet philosophic interest in all of nature and in individuals of every walk of life. Emerson stresses the potential for genius and creativity in all people. It is a source of creative insight within which Emerson identifies as divine. According to Emerson, “Mind is the only reality of which men and all other natures are better or worse reflectors. ” For Emerson, “intuition” is the capability of seeing things creatively.
We are limited as humans due to our imperfect nature, but through divine inspiration, and self confidence, we can achieve a higher level of understanding. Therefore, Emerson calls for us to always be prepared to listen to this voice within instead of conforming to societal pressures. The theme of Self-Reliance is an elaboration of this idealist theme: “we are to follow our own lights. ” The Over-soul, “the only prophet of that which must be,” is both “the act of seeing and the thing seen. It creates our world in depth by means of our insight and interpretations. Emerson”s great emphasis upon nonconformity and integrity shows that this Over-soul creates a world through individuals rather than through the conformity of society. “Where we find beauty in a flower or a forest or a poem, meaning and direction, or deep understanding, the voice of “this deity” is speaking through us and creating the world around us by such means.
This deity does not speak to groups but, in radical protestant style, to each person alone to the degree he or she attends to the message. ” The value Emerson attributes to the messages depends upon the Over-soul being “self-sufficing and perfect in every hour. ” In spite of his individualism, Emerson”s thought is similar to the romantic nationalism of 19th century Europe, but where this nationalism focused upon collective entities such as a people, their language and culture, Emerson”s focus is upon the individual.
In Self-Reliance he says, “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. ” Where nationalism stresses the development of an authentic national culture free from foreign influences and takes a collective perspective more or less for granted, Emerson applies a similar approach to each individual. Emerson complains that all men hear the inner voice, but most are too scared due to peer pressure to act upon the intuitions. Society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. ”
Emerson feels man must work on his own and be diligent and truthful in that work to produce a better society. Man must be willing to take risks instead of conforming to the rules of society in order to prosper. Man should control society instead of allowing society to control man. The two major barriers to self-reliance are conformity and relying on the past. The Trustee is man, himself, when he trusts his own intuition.
This modifies the egotism of self-reliance because it makes it common to all men and it creates the view that self-reliance is not based on intellect but on common sense. Self-reliance allows one to progress in any situation. It implies that there would be no king or higher government; all would be equal. Self-reliance does not allow men to claim that they know God and use ancient terminology because in this way men revert to the past for authority. Emerson feels man should realize that his life is built on fate and chance and he has no power to control the outcome.
Society wants to impose government, rules, and law on its people so they can be puppet-like. Emerson proposes that men live based on their own individual instincts thus creating their own internal law. Emerson believes that men fail to succeed because they allow society to think for them. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblins of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. ” Emerson believes in living in the present and not in the past.
Society is compared to a “joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. ” This is his explanation of how people are seduced into ignoring their own insights and convictions, their own “culture,” in order to better profit by their relationship with society. Emerson warns of the seductions of society and supplies a moral counter weight “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
It is better to make your own mistakes and suffer from them than to make the mistakes dictated by another and surrender oneself to dissolution in outside forces. ” Though “the sensual man conforms thoughts to things, the poet conforms things to his thoughts. ” Emerson succeeded in conforming generations of Americans to his thought. Now, in an age where conformity is used in commercials as an advertising gimmick, Emerson would probably offer the following: “Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now. “