Ralph Waldo Emerson: Self-Reliance and Other Essays

Three of the essays in this collection (“History,” “Self-Reliance,” “The Over-soul”) sprang from the 1836 lectures on the philosophy of history Emerson delivered at the Boston Masonic Temple.

“History” really isn’t about history but how to convert the burden of the past into a survival kit for the future. “The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible.” Emerson believed that history could not be ignored, but for it to have currency we must imagine ourselves in it. “We . . . must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king, martyr and executioner, must fasten images to some reality in our experience, or we shall learn nothing rightly.”

Emerson’s essay on the unalienated human being, “Self-Reliance,” the essay for which he is most remembered, is a synthesis of the self-rule of classical stoicism, the bildung of Goethe, the ideas of Schleiermacher, the knotty musings of Kant — translated into a coherent, accessible English. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” But it is not a mandate for selfishness. It recommends self-reliance as a starting point — not as a goal. A better society will come about only as an association of fulfilled individuals. Whereas “Self-Reliance” emphasizes the individual, “The Over-soul” focuses on the common mind. “Self-Reliance affirms individualism; “The Over-soul affirms “that great nature in which we rest,” a nature variously described as “a common nature,” “the great heart of nature,” “the common heart,” and “the great, universal mind.” The link between these two essays is Emerson’s idea that the power of the individual is the power of our common nature.

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

Also in this collection is “The Poet,” the finest piece ever penned about literature as a process, a form of expression as fundamental as any basic drive — like sex — but also one of the main purposes of human life. Poetry is not a skill or a trade, but a reflection of the human spirit, the inner fire: “For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch bearers, but children of the fire, made of it.”

The last essay in this collection is “The Divinity School Address,” given July 15, 1838, to the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School. Emerson had not been invited by the officers of the school, but by the senior class. What he delivered that evening was so objectionable to the clergy that nearly thirty years passed before he was invited to speak again at Harvard. Emerson’s address was both an attack on formal historical Christianity and a proposition of a personal religious consciousness, a sort of declaration of the divinity of the human. Emerson ended his talk with advice that asked a lot of the young graduates: “Let me admonish you to go alone; to refuse the good models . . . and to love God without mediator or veil.” The address would be Emerson’s last face-off with organized religion, though he would remain a deeply religious and spiritual man throughout his life.

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