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Ralph Waldo Emerson: Self-Reliance



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Self-Reliance, from Essays: First Series (1841)
Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Ne te quaesiveris extra." [“Seek not outside yourself.”]

"Man is his own star [source of light, truth]; and the soul [consciousness, awareness] that can Render [to make, to cause to become] an honest and a perfect [to evolve to full humanity] man Commands all light, all influence, all fate [i.e., can do anything]; Nothing to him [the enlightened, self-aware one] falls early or too late [he successfully plays the hand dealt to him as person is given exactly what he or she needs for soul unfoldment].

Our acts our angels [‘Every man hath a good and a bad angel attending on him in particular all his life long,’ Robert Burton] are, [f]or good or ill, our fatal [proceeding from fate, i.e. in the nature of things] shadows [i.e., these deeds, good and bad, are like angels, constant companions to us] that walk by us still."

[Man’s deeds, in the nature of things (fate), are a mixture of good and evil; but, enlightenment brings with it a command of fate and destiny, the power to recast oneself as fully human. Before the dawning of soul awareness, hapless Man is influenced by the bad angels that walk with him; but, when he discovers that the source of light resides within himself, the future, assuredly, will be a good one.

Now, for him, fate is neither too early nor too late, but all things work together as a blended tapestry of ‘just in time.’ The past itself is remolded as something friendly to one’s highest interests, the pain and travail in everyone’s life, notwithstanding. All fate bends the neck to the Man with the light of awareness in his eyes.]

Epilogue to Beaumont and Fletcher's [English playwrites, 1600s] Honest Man's Fortune

Cast the bantling [babe] on the rocks,
Suckle him with the she-wolf's teat [ref to Romulus and Remus];
Wintered with the hawk and fox,
Power and speed be hands and feet.
[these are examples of self-reliance: Romulus and Remus, as babes, were abandoned; fate provided as Nature itself came to their rescue. They became stronger for this. Having learned from animals which could survive during lifeless winter, they developed new aptitudes which compensated for the lack of others: “power and speed (of the hawk and fox) be hands and feet”]

ESSAY II Self-Reliance

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter [ie, one who does not hold himself out to the world as a skilled writer] which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition [counsel, reproof] in such lines [written by the non-expert, ie, a source which narrow minds consider to be unexpected], let the subject be what it may. The sentiment [ie, a confidence, an unwillingness to remain silent because one is not an “expert”] they [the lines] instill is of more value than any thought they may contain.

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. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense [ie, we tap into a common source of consciousness]; for the inmost [our deepest aspirations and values] in due time becomes the outmost,— and our first [primal, most cherished] thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment [ie, we will become what we think about; first thoughts mold our destiny; “what is a man but the sum of his thoughts?”].

Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each [and therefore, because of this familiarity, it should naturally serve as our most trusted guide], the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what [other] men [thought] but what they thought [as did Jesus who often ignored settled tradition and would assert, “but I say to you…”].

A man should learn to detect and watch [studied self awareness; an observer of one’s own thoughts; see the works of Tolle] that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament [ie, more luminescent than the stars in the heavens] of bards and sages [those lauded as wise].

Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his [Is this not a form of self-loathing?]. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty [we say that universal truth resonates, is recognized, within, but its call to recognition is often dismissed until proclaimed by another.]

Great works of art have no more affecting [producing strong feelings] lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous [first] impression with good-humored inflexibility then most [of our other thoughts] when the whole cry of voices [in the world of “experts” and authority, and from one’s small ego] is on the other side [appealing to us to conform, to obey Dear Leader, to defer to externals]. 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 [and growing level of maturity and consciousness] when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of [goodness’] nourishing corn [for his own soul] can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground [his own deepest Person] which is given to him to till [ie, the universe is filled with the good and the true, but truth will be recognized as such only by the heart, stirred to higher consciousness, that has prepared itself to receive and to recognize it].

The power which resides in him is new in nature [this elevated consciousness represents a leap forward in the evolution of humankind: see Tolle’s “New Earth”], and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. [He is unique in the universe, in all God’s creation, possessing a one-of-a-kind mix of talents and attributes. He, and only he, will see certain things, and only he or she is fitted to perform certain tasks.] Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and [on] another [person] none. [Each of us is exclusively fitted to recognize certain truths.]

This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony.
[Universal truths can be recognized by all; but certain aspects of the truth are particularized and meant only for certain ones.] The eye [the viewpoint of a particular man] was placed where one ray [of mental light] should fall [i.e., only he will see it], that it [his particular viewpoint] might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves [when we deny another part of ourselves, the counsel of our inner persons], and are ashamed of that divine idea [that particular viewpoint as gift from God] which each of us represents.

It [one’s honest and particular viewpoint] may be safely trusted as proportionate [i.e., equal to one’s considerable God-given ability, and therefore we can expect our natures to give rise to divine wisdom] and of good issues [in that such discernment originates from the soul, a consciousness-link with the divine goodness], so it be faithfully imparted [to others, taught by you], but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. [When you are treated to an insight offered by the soul, you have a duty, for the greater good, to share this particular viewpoint on the truth.]

A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best [the essence of morality is good intention]; but what he has said or done otherwise [those deeds representing caving to fears, a lack of trust in what his deepest person affirms and knows to be true], shall give him no peace. It [ie, taking the safe but disingenuous route of imitating others] is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt [to take the safe way] his genius deserts him [in that, the creative process is short-circuited]; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. [Right now, this moment, in terms of your soul’s development, you are exactly where you are meant to be.] Great men have always done so [trusted themselves], and confided themselves childlike [obediently deferring, taking orders, like a child, but only from one’s deepest person] to [that is, which leads to being considered by society as] the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.

[Greatness is a quality not meant for the few, but for all, and is as near as one’s willingness to access the inspiration of the divine power within.]
And we are now men [not life’s victims, not helpless in the storm of this world], and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny [that we, each of us, made in the divine image, are all destined to attain to greatness]; 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. [Notice the contrast: we become “men,” conquerors of the Darkness, fundamentally, by “confiding childlike” with our own souls, that link to the divine, the inner light.]

What pretty oracles [wise, prophetic, enigmatic messages] nature yields us on this text, [Nature offers to us pretty oracles on the preceding text concerning great men having learned to trust themselves and encouraged others to the same; that no one is a victim, that we can overcome the darkness, and that all enlightened willingly enlist themselves in a vast army of helpers to serve those less sighted. What are these “pretty oracles”?] in the face and behaviour of children, babes, and even brutes!

[The “face” and “behavior” of the very young, babes and animals, are the “pretty oracles” which present to us a message of uncomplicated innocence; these find it easy to trust and to listen. These do not worry about their next meal or where they shall sleep, but, instead, tend to live in a world of joy and peace. Moreover, children, even in their communal play, often exhibit a natural sense of justice, of what is fair and right, a topic often pointedly discussed by them. In this “behavior” we glimpse the natural state of our souls, unfettered by the cares of this world, and the schemes of the ego for aggrandizement.]

That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment [of altruism, of giving of one’s substance] because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these [babes and animals] have not. [As the child grows, the ego and all of its dysfunction begins to distort the vision of the soul’s innocence. The “arithmetic” no longer adds up. We see Jesus with five loaves and a few fishes and severely doubt that the multitude, and ourselves, will be fed.]

Their [the child’s] mind being whole [sincere], their eye [the mental viewpoint of faith] is as yet unconquered [remains firm in its conviction that all will be well], and when we look in their [innocent, guileless] faces, we are disconcerted [as we realize that we have lost something].
Infancy conforms to nobody [look at the toddler, joyously ambling, pleasing no one but herself]: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it.
[The babe is what it is and does not attempt to impress or be what it is not; not so with its adult supervisors. These, seemingly, are not settled within themselves. They will attempt “four or five” adaptations of self in order to please the child.]

So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy [stimulating, exciting] and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not to be put by, if it will stand by itself.
[Each phase of life might picture the mind of God but in a different way. Each has its glory, its beauty, its grace, its wonder, if, in wholeness and honesty and trust, it will be what it is, “if it will stand by itself.”]

Do not think the youth has no force, because [for shyness or deference to authority] 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. [ie, these unexpressed powers in a child’s spirit will soon rise up and replace the current generation.]

The nonchalance [root: to be warm; linked to ‘calorie.’ ie ‘to be cool,’ indifferent] of boys who are sure of a dinner [ie, without survival fears, no job to lose, therefore, unafraid to speak one’s mind], and would disdain as much as a lord [an authority figure who needs nothing from you and therefore is bold to do as he likes] to do or say aught [ie, anything, he will not offer the smallest gesture, word or deed] to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour [Emerson had just told us that children in the next room are quite able to be vociferously frank with each other; ie, in the parlour] what the pit is in the playhouse [formerly, seating at a play below the level of the stage; ie, the cheap seats, the occupants of which represented a lower class, ones who did not hesitate to inform the actors of their disapproval]; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. [quick and frank judgments on all, kind and unkind] He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you.

But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness [he is well aware of how his words can cause him trouble]. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat [striking effect, confidence, independence], he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds [labeled as on one side or the other], whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. [ie, no way to forget or go back, he will be remembered, marked for what he says] [Greek mythology: Lethe: The personification of oblivion, daughter of Eris; one of the rivers which flow through Hades, and from which the souls of the dead had to drink to forget their past lives spent on Earth.]

Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! [Others will never again see you in the former light, before opinions were given.] Who can thus avoid all pledges [he must stand for something, must offer “pledges” of support to one side or another], and having observed [life as it truly is, without the self-interest blinders of the ego], observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence [like the frank boy in the parlour who worries not about receiving his supper], must always be formidable.

[This man or woman is “formidable” because he or she cannot be bought or sold! Cannot be frightened away or intimidated! Cannot be talked out of his or her position if he knows it to be true.] He [this unbribable, formidable man] would utter [substantive] opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private [not mere petty, empty opinion of a small mind], but [offered with wisdom, a certain natural authority, as representing universal law,] necessary [and inevitable], would sink like darts into the ear of men [resonating as once-avoided truth], and put them in fear [as these honest and wise words, eschewing conformity, become a threat to society’s narrow and entrenched world views].

[For most of us] These are the [frank] voices which we hear [only] in solitude [of one’s inner person], but they [these inner voices] grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the [spiritual maturity, the individuation, the] manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. [Within the society of the ego, true friendship is unknown, but only self-protecting alliances and conspiracies, all directed toward the securing of material substance.]

The virtue in most request [by the world] is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names [which label, strictly limit, and define, but only to marginalize] and customs [which reduce to ritual and sterile institution the illimitable spiritual essence of life]. [the ego loves shadows, not realities; rituals and customs, not the truth behind the ceremony; conformists, not creators, whose new things threaten the vested interests of the status quo.]

Whoso would be a [mature, spiritual] man must be a nonconformist.
He who would gather immortal palms [I think “immortal palms” is a metaphor indicating “eternal glory and honor.” Think of Jesus entering Jerusalem with the adoring crowds, viewing him as King of Israel, lining the road with palm branches. I think Emerson is saying, “Do you want to attain enduring greatness as a fully developed person? You will not achieve it but by following the dictates of your inner person, by trusting yourself.] must not be hindered by the [institutionalized concepts of morality, by the hollow word, the mere] name of goodness

[Emerson warned us about “names and customs.” The ego loves to talk the talk, use the great words, in its masquerade as a good person – but the word goodness is not goodness itself.] but must explore [for him or herself] if [in truth] it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

Absolve [set free, loose, release] you to yourself, and [in due time, and at last] you shall have the suffrage [the support, the approval] of the world.

[Set yourself free from self-imposed limitations. Do not think that you are not as able as any other person. Do not see yourself as less. Do not offer obsequious homage to any Dear Leader. You have something unique and precious to offer the universe, and, if withheld, we shall all be the poorer. Insist on your own mental freedom, and, in due time, the world itself will come round to blessing the day when you declared independence. And that “world” might also include you, that part of you now held in the bondage of fear-based self-judgment.]

I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued [sarcasm] adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear [sarcasm] old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — "But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." [and why might the adviser’s ideas not be of the Devil? Ones who attack in this way always arrogantly exclude themselves from the possibility of error]

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names [just words] very readily transferable to that or this; the only [thing that is] right is what is after my constitution [that which feels right to the True Inner Person], the only wrong what is against it.  [why should this be heresy? Are we not made in the divine image? And why should not that image grow up to discern between good and evil?]

A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular [existing in title only] and ephemeral [temporary] but he.
I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. [names… just because someone who wears a black robe, speaks in god-talk, carries a black book, makes funny hand signs, doesn’t mean that he is a leader of a “church” – what is the church? The answer will not be found in externals.]

Every decent and well-spoken individual [e.g., the Nice Young Man at Church] affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright [as opposed to being swayed, bent] and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, 'Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: [Emerson is saying that some pretend to be loving toward ones far away, especially, with fashionable causes, but they ignore or abuse others close at hand, a child at home, a hired servant.] good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish [create a polished exterior for] your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible [unbelievable] tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.'
Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love.

Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none. [The “rough and graceless” words, like those of an OT prophet, warn people of their own duplicitous ways. Emerson here defines goodness as that which helps people break out of the bondage of self-deception. These words can be hard for people to accept, as many do not want to change; hence, the truth will sometimes have an “edge” to it.]

The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules [cries] and whines. [Goodness, with an “edge” to it, can seem to some as a doctrine of hatred; yet, it “must” be preached as “counteraction” to false expressions and mere posturing of love, empty sentimentality, that cries and whines.] I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. [Who is to define right and wrong? Only the sanctified inner person! There are times, as Jesus said, to avoid toxic family members – the rightness of which act will be defined by the “genius” within.]

I would write on the lintels of the door-post [reference to Exodus], Whim.
[Emerson’s atonement doctrine is one of ultimate personal freedom to choose – so much so that even “whim” might characterize the liberty.]
I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. 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 [some forms of charity compound the effects of evil, hurt more than help, and keep people in a dependent frame of mind; it takes a great deal of wisdom to properly render aid without increasing injury] 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. There 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;

[Emerson here speaks of no narrow favoritism. The “spiritual” are progressive, are learning to listen to God within; but the egoic, and their social problems, represent a bottomless pit of need, and all the money in the world given to their support will, in the end, avail little; indeed, would make them worse. The sentiment expressed here, in fact, is that which guides the charitable effort on the other side. Untold millions languish in the dark realms, unresponsive to the proffered aid of missionary spirits. But these spiritually-dull denizens of the Dark are allowed to languish the longer; as long as they so desire! until they are ready to sincerely ask for help, to change, to make a new start on a new life.] but your miscellaneous popular charities; the [materialistic and worldly] education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end [misguided programs which will end in failure] to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold 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.
[Emerson’s “wicked dollar,” these “alms to sots,” might support those who seek identity in victimhood, those who harbor no view toward attacking root causes, by knowing the true self, of disease or other social ill.]     

Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and his virtues. Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world, — as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate [atone for sin; ie not to die for sins but to live; sin = another ref to Exodus], but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding. I ask primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man to his actions. I know that for myself it makes no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.

What I [myself] must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. 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...



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