Self Reliance and Other Essays

Self Reliance and Other Essays Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Describe Emerson's conception of God, Nature, and their relationship to one another.

    For Emerson, God is not the typical anthropomorphic God of historical and modern Christianity, but rather a universal soul (what he calls, "Reason" in Nature, and the "Over-Soul" in "Over-Soul") with which all humanity and nature are connected to, and from which the nature of Justice, Truth, Love, and Freedom emerge.

    By "Nature," Emerson includes everything that is "not me" (i.e., separate from the Soul), "both nature [as conventionally understood, i.e., those essences unchanged by humans, like a tree or a river] and art [those essences mixed with the will of humans, like a house or a canal], all other men and my own body." Like the Stoics, Emerson believed that in nature could be found the source of moral principles and well-being.

    In this way, God and Nature compose the world in which humanity resides. They are two sides of the same coin, captured by Emerson's experience as a "transparent eyeball," a conduit for God as he stands in nature:

    There [in the woods] I feel that nothing can befall me in life, - no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, - my had bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, - all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

  2. 2

    Describe the various facets of Transcendentalism.

    Transcendentalism was in part an ethical and religious reformist movement that rejected "historical Christianity" for a more direct connection with a universal soul (i.e., God or Reason), an impersonal force that operated according to "the moral law," grounded in everyday experiences with nature in the present. It was also an aesthetic, literary, and philosophical treatise molded by ancient and modern influences, including Idealism, Stoicism, German and English Romanticism (e.g., Goethe, Wordsworth, Carlyle), Skepticism (e.g., Hume), Biblical criticism (e.g., Herder, Schleiermacher), Eastern religion and philosophy, and the mystical philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg. Finally, it was a social and political commentary that resisted established conventions (e.g., American slavery), sought modes of rethinking the relationship between humanity and the world, and engaged contemporary readers in the process of identity formation.

  3. 3

    Describe Emerson's ideas about the fundamental relationship between humanity and Nature.

    In Nature, Emerson outlines his initial ideas about the fundamental relationship of humanity with nature, which he would develop further in later essays. His conception of this relationship was revolutionary for its time when many thought of humanity as separate from and above the rest of the natural world, and of nature as the mere reflection of human will/manipulation, a means for human ends. Emerson outlines in detail and in ascending order of importance the components of the relationship of humanity and nature: the common uses/aspects of nature (see "Commodity," "Beauty," and "Language"), our lived experience vis-a-vis nature (see "Discipline"), and the manifestation of the universal/divine (what he calls, "Reason") in nature (i.e., Transcendentalism; see "Idealism," "Spirit," and "Prospects").

  4. 4

    What does Emerson mean by "self-reliance"? How does one achieve it? What stands in the way?

    Emerson emphasized the need for individuals to avoid conformity and false consistency, and instead follow their own instincts and ideas. Emerson famously counsels his reader to "Trust thyself." In other words, to accept one's destiny, "the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events." The difficulty of trusting our own mind lies in the conspiracy of society against the individual, for society valorizes conformity. Another barrier is the fear for our own consistency.

  5. 5

    How does Emerson use observations and metaphors of nature to illustrate his philosophical points?

    In terms of observation, Emerson often described common, natural scenes found in his everyday life. For example, in Nature, he wrote, "Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear." Rather than mundane observations of his surroundings though, such examples served to illustrate the constant revelations he believed could be found in our embodied experiences of nature in the present moment (if we are alert and open to their existence).

    Metaphors of nature illustrated and emphasized Emerson belief in a fundamental relationship between humanity and nature. For example, in Self-Reliance, Emerson argues one must live as courageously as a rose.

    Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say “I think,” “I am,” but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence… But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

  6. 6

    How do circles illustrate life as process?

    Circles ripple through nature, individuals, and society, and ultimately connect all to God. In terms of nature, we spend all our lives standing in the midst of and trying to understand the circles which ripple throughout nature – “there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”

    In terms of individuals, if they are defined by their thoughts, the ideas that classify facts (and thus the world), then each individual life is a self-evolving circle ever expanding outward into new and larger forms, though the extent to which this occurs depends on “the force or truth of the individual soul.” When individuals generate a circle by telling their stories, such a circle shades the world with the lines and meanings of such stories, only to be redrawn when a new circle encompasses and reconfigures the former.

    In terms of society, Emerson observes the countless historical examples of new inventions eclipsing what came before, and the rise of new art causing the statues of old to fall into disrepair. As with solid matter, so with the intangible aspects of society, including virtue.

    While the revolutionary circles of life eternally ripple through nature, individuals, and society, they all emanate from the soul, or rather, God. the soul forever labors to achieve a life and thought marked by godliness, and thus eternally generates circles, but always in vain, for each subsequent circle only moves ever more toward godliness. In this way, life is defined by a constant desire to draw a new circle, to connect with God.

  7. 7

    In "The Poet," what does Emerson mean by, "Language is fossil poetry"?

    The poet is not a maker or creator of original material, but rather a namer or sayer. The poet hears the poetry sung by nature - communicated by “picture-language,” symbols whose meaning fluctuates with time - that permeates the world and sets it down into words. In this way, the poet creates a new layer of thought and words in the sediment of language, as all poets have done. Each word was "at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer."

  8. 8

    Why does Emerson open "Experience" with a poem about the "lords of life"?

    Emerson opens his essay with a poem about the “lords of life” to describe those forces which affect our experience of life. Within this poem lies the problem Emerson seeks to address. We walk in confusion among these forces, including God (the “inventor of the game”), given the difficulty of gaining perspective on our life beyond our material existence and the everyday details that preoccupy us. Emerson hopes to shed light on how one might do so through self-reliance, as nature comforts man by saying the lords will “wear another face” tomorrow, and man will rise above them.

  9. 9

    What is the nature and role of revelation?

    In "The Over-Soul," Emerson argues we recognize our soul and its connection to the Over-Soul through revelation. While the popular conception of revelation is of fortune-telling, such a practice is low, sinful, and ultimately futile. God will provide no answer to questions of the future, for humans should live in the present and accept “the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature.” Revelation properly understood is instead the “influx of the Divine mind into our mind,” and can be seen all across the history of religion. When our soul mingles with the Over-Soul in a moment of revelation, we receive a new truth or perform a great feat. Such moments are filled with the sublime, which leads to obedience to and insight into the Over-Soul.