Self Reliance and Other Essays

Illusion and Reality in Emerson's Experience College

In Experience, Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses the dichotomy of illusion and an absolute realm. Through the exercise of skepticism, Emerson establishes an uncertain knowledge of the phenomenal realm of reality; neither the intellect nor emotion can grasp the meaning of the events occurring in the outside world. Similarly, absolute truth remains obscured from Emerson’s perception. Nevertheless, he remains certain of its presence, and responds to the threat of illusion with spontaneous appeals to higher knowledge. Although waking up, so to speak, proves impossible from Emerson’s current point of perception, Emerson maintains faith in the presence of a holistic reality. His response to a valueless external world proves to be, throughout the piece, an appeal to integrate with a “creative power”, or higher realm. (281) Therefore, Emerson ultimately advocates for the abandonment of illusion in favor of experience.

While Emerson identifies “illusion” as a separate “lord of life” in his opening poem, his essay implies that all perceptual subjective forms of knowledge are fundamentally illusory.(269) The lords of life -- Illusion, Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, and Subjectiveness -- distort our experience, disabling...

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