Self Reliance and Other Essays

The Business of Thought: Financial Language in Emerson and James

As evidenced by its continued appearance throughout the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, the language of finance served as a particularly useful wellspring for examples and terminology to help those authors convey the important elements of their respective messages. For Emerson, economic terminology is employed to negatively describe unfavorable aspects of the mundane physical world humans inhabit in order to contrast it with a higher, spiritual plane of existence as well as to decry mindsets that lead people to focus on trivial affairs and not on the larger, more significant aspects of the universe. In contrast, James uses metaphors of cash and credit to provide tangible examples for his audience in order to clarify and expound on his abstract pragmatist theories. His use of the imagery of money and exchange has no negative connotations; rather, they are particularly useful literary devices that allow him to get his point across to the reader in other words.

One of Emerson’s most prominent uses of financial language is in “Self-Reliance,” where he writes that “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...

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