Self-reliance and the sacred/secular life

In his still-reliable and still-relevant essay from 1839, “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) preaches the gospel of genius in each individual. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all [people]—that is genius.”

Since college days I’ve returned to “Self-Reliance” (first published in 1841) time and again for a boost of esteem and a burst of steam. When I collected Emersonian wisdom in my little book of his meditations, I was reminded of the depth of his thought.

Consider some of these timeless quotes:

“There is a time in every [person’s] education when he [or she] arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide … .”

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

“Whoso would be a [human being], must be a nonconformist.”

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

In one of my favorite passages from the essay, Emerson tells a story from his youth, when a “valued advisor” pushed “the dear old doctrines of the church” on his young mind. The youthful thinker pushed back with these wise words: “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” If he was living as his heart and mind led him, why did he need to assent to the traditions passed down through the ages? His elder advisor warned him that his inner guidance may not be “from above” but from the evil one. The precocious boy responded that his inner impulses didn’t seem so bad, “but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”

Devilish boy!

The grown-up philosopher goes on to exclaim: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” And then he says “it is easy … to live after the world’s opinion … .” but the truly mature person is the one who can live a life of independence even in the company of others.

Rather than a self-centered message (Emerson was not anti-communal), this is an essential call to boldly think for ourselves.
The former (Unitarian) minister can get fairly pointed in his comments on the church.
“If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society” and vote along party lines, “under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man [or woman] you are.”

Where’s he going with this sharp critique? To this famous line:

“A foolish consistency [and conformity] is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and [clergy].” If you are not able to learn, to change your mind and speak your own truth, even if that contradicts what you’ve said before, you are foolishly bowing to the goblins in your own little head.

But what if you’re misunderstood? Emerson nails his response:

“Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? … Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton” and many others were misunderstood. “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

But how do we know we’re on the right path, the correct course for our lives? I can still recall memorizing this line in a college English course: “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.” It may seem that our ship is wildly off-course, but all those “course corrections” may be moving us in the best direction.

Emerson used the word “Transcendentalist,” a wide-lens perspective that takes the long-view, the over-view of life. His sense of the divine was that each person, drawing from their inner good sense and reason, could transcend tradition and orthodoxy to directly connect to an innate “divinity” that is greater than any theology.

“Whenever a mind is simple [open and clear] and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away—… teachers, texts, temples fall … . All things are made sacred by relation to [the present].”

We can see from these kinds of statements why Ralph Waldo Emerson has been considered a “spiritual teacher” or even mystic by some. Yet we can also hear in his voice the courageously dangerous call of a “happy heretic.”

“If therefore [someone] claims to know and speak of God and carries you backward to the [language of an ancient land], believe him not.” Our “worship of the past” cannot stand before a confident human being who says “I think” and “I am” rather than quoting some old “saint or sage.”

The wise writer of Concord preaches the obvious:

“Our religion we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us.”

“Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother [or sister], because he [or she] has shut his own temple doors and recites fables merely of [other people’s] God.”

How true does that sound?

Faith or no faith, can we dare to trust the integrity of our own minds and think for ourselves?

Chris Highland
2019

 

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