Self Reliance and Other Essays

Self Reliance and Other Essays Quotes and Analysis

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Self-Reliance, 96

In "Self-Reliance," Emerson emphasizes the need for individuals to reject conformity and false consistency, and instead follow their own instincts and ideas as they unfold in the present moment. This may result in the individual being misunderstood; but, Emerson argues, all great people were misunderstood, including Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Copernicus, and Galileo.

"Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories and criticism."

Nature, Introduction (10)

Emerson begins Nature with a dismissal of the way in which the past dominates the way we understand and act in the present. If earlier generations "beheld God and nature face to face" (as documented in the Bible, for example), the present generation should also enjoy a direct relationship to the universe (i.e., God), and develop its own poetry and philosophy of insight (rather than one based on tradition, a history of other people's past revelations). Such a poetry and philosophy of insight is grounded, he goes on to argue, in our direct experience of nature.

"All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature."

Nature, Introduction (10)

By "science," Emerson refers to both the natural and humanistic sciences, which he does not view as distinct from one another (as we would today), but rather joined in their mutual interest in understanding nature. Such a proposition grounds his philosophy centered on nature, as delineated in Nature.

"To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun."

Nature, Section 1: Nature (12)

Emerson does not mean that adults are literally blind to nature, but rather that their sight is superficial, because they see with only their eyes. In comparison, children see with both their eyes and heart - their inward and outward senses are still in sync. As such, the true lover of nature must retain this childhood sensibility in adulthood, and continue to experience a wild delight in the presence of nature.

"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."

Nature, Section 1: Nature (13)

The properly cultivated person, according to Emerson, remains in touch with both his/her soul and nature. All egotism vanishes in the presence of nature, making the person a conduit for the Universal Being/God/Over-Soul/Reason - a "transparent eyeball."

"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."

Nature, Section 1: Nature (13)

As in much of his writing, Emerson describes a common, natural scene found in his everyday life. Rather than a mundane observation of his surroundings, though, this example serves to illustrate the constant revelations Emerson believed could be found in our embodied experiences of nature in the present moment (if we are alert and open to their existence).

“For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word or a verse and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem. The men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of the nations.”

The Poet, 211

According to Emerson, poetry always already exists and pervades the world, people, and things. It is part of the nature of all things. The poet is able to hear its music and set it down in words (albeit imperfectly). Unlike the romantics, Emerson downplayed the role of originality in poetry, and instead focused on the strength of the correspondence between the poet and the world.

"For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem, - a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.

The Poet, 212

Here, Emerson puts forward his argument for what defines poetry - not its structure, but rather the thought captured by the poem. The poem's structure should accommodate the form such thought demands, even if it may not appear like anything previously regarded as poetry.

“Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence.”

The Over-Soul, 135

This quote distills and captures Emerson's stance on the relationship of correspondence between every human and the universe, wherein every human is joined to all others (human and nonhuman) through God. There is no wall in the soul at which humans (an effect) end and God (the ultimate cause) begins, for we, like all things, are immersed in the stream of spiritual nature.

"There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees."

Circles, 226

Emerson proposed that nature, like life, is defined not by perfection or permanence, but rather by growth, fluidity, and process. Ever-expanding and eclipsing circles that emanate from the force of the individual soul are Emerson's chief metaphor for this in "Circles."