Emersonian Individualism Essay

Emerson’s “transcendentalism” is essentially a romantic individualism,
a philosophy of life for a new people who had overthrown their colonial
governors and set about conquering a new continent by their own lights. Though
Emerson is not a technical philosopher, the tendency of his thought is toward
idealist metaphysics in which soul and intuition, or inspiration, are central.

The new American experiment needed every idea within its reach. Taking a
practical and democratic, yet poetic 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. His praise for Plato can easily be found in his
work. He says that “Mind is the only reality of which men and all other
natures are better or worse reflectors.” For Emerson, “intuition” is
a poetic faculty of seeing things creatively. Nothing is possible within our
distinctively human world without such creative insight and interpretation.

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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 that great nature in
which we rest.” It is both “the act of seeing and the thing seen,”
and 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 commerce
of groups. “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, or their state, 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 romantic 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.

He complains that all men hear the inner voice in solitude but that they lose
themselves when they enter into the world of men. “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 him. 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 archaic 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 thereby creating
their own internal law. Emerson believes that men fail to prosper 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 likened 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
intercourse 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. Creative interpretation is not to be discouraged,
and each person’s genius should be developed as far as possible. This is the
central meaning of American liberalism, and the critique of mere conformity is
an important part of this. Yet an empirical and scientific emphasis is needed to
counter balance the stress upon creativity. For while facts and perception do
not dictate our interpretations of the world, they are often capable of deciding
between them. Emerson, the man and Emerson, the thinker never completely left
the world of common human experience, never sought to dwell, with the Over-soul
alone, among the clouds of Plato’s heaven. His writing also suggests a critical
attitude toward the apparent excesses of Emerson’s individualism. For it
suggests that romantic individualism arises from uncritical use of creative
insight. The alternative involves a greater stress upon cooperation and
collaboration. Though Emerson’s individualism is less extreme than Thoreau’s,
involving as it does a deep-felt mission to help others help themselves, helping
others does not amount to collaboration with them. Even the best aimed, most
needed charity does not engage and challenge self and others as do cooperative
undertakings. Emerson’s point is that we need to rely upon the creative
individual, freed of the felt need to conformity, to supply interpretations of
experience. However, since interpretations and insights are not self-certifying,
it follows that great importance attaches to understanding alternative
interpretations or theories. Otherwise, there will be no possibility of tests
between such alternatives. This requires tolerance of alternative perspectives.

It requires, as well, the attempt at sympathetic understanding of alternative
points of view. Communications between alternative viewpoints is crucial if we
are to put ourselves in a position for deciding between alternatives in an
intelligent manner. Besides listening to the internal voice, we must also do our
best to listen to voices from without. The opposite of conformity is not simple
self-assertion, or uncritical persistence in one or another prejudice, not even
one’s own; these are merely two sides of the same bogus coin. The alternative
is conclusions based upon well-informed, intelligent communications. The facts
of social and intellectual complexity in the modern world, no less than
humanity’s power over nature, make it imperative to think, deploy the full
powers of human intelligence. Emerson provides a framework, or basic value
orientation, for flexible relations to the world around us including the social
world of joint projects and purposes. Yet this framework leaves us as isolated
individuals where it is not supplemented by emphasis upon empirical inquiry and
tests of our insights and intuitions. Our actions in the world, and even the
full development of the self, depend upon cooperation with others in every
crucial sphere. But considerable inquiry, however informal, is required merely
to find those most suited to such joint undertakings. For example, one does not
effectively distinguish a momentary wish or feeling from a formative and
enduring desire on the basis of 5 minutes’ conversation. Yet momentary wishes
are near useless as a basis of long-term cooperation. In order to avoid being
atomized and isolated, to avoid a mere phenomenal existence, Emersonian
intuition requires the addition of a tough-minded empiricism, oriented to the
lush growth of human expression and suited to intelligent cultivation of the
best in others. 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.”


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