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The Transcendentalism Project > Transcendentalists Week 4

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message 1: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Still chewing on Nature, but time to move along too.

This week's reading is Emerson's essay Self Reliance.

You can find it here:
http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfrel...

Or you can find it in the Gutenberg copy of his First Essays, here:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2944

Or you can find a pdf copy from Dartmouth College here:
https://math.dartmouth.edu/~doyle/doc...


For resources, this page has some potentially useful essays and comments.
http://www.transcendentalists.com/sel...


message 2: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments I first read this in high school and was enormously impressed. Read it in college and not quite as impressed but still liked it. Will be interested to see how it strikes me after fifty years of adult life and raising a family. Will the idealism still impress, or will I look at it with a bit more jaundiced eye than I did as an idealistic youth?


message 3: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments I think I felt like this when I first moved out of the house and got my own apartment. And then reality gradually sank in.


message 4: by David (new)

David | 2614 comments
Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
Shame? Really? If one is inclined to agree that there is nothing new under the sun, then Emerson has doomed the bulk of the population to a lifetime of painful humiliation, himself included.

Does he cover his bases when he suggests that "The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain." Is he instructing us to take the sentiment, or attitude, but not so much the thought? How is the sentiment different from the thought and why is it of higher value?


message 5: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments David wrote: "Does he cover his bases when he suggests that "The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain." Is he instructing us to take the sentiment, or attitude, but not so much the thought?

I suppose he must mean that it is better to think for oneself rather than to latch onto popular opinion. I hope he does not go so far as to deny the value of education, or "discipline", as he calls it in "Nature", but maybe he does. Sometimes it sounds like he is suggesting that we should learn everything from scratch, from nature directly. Was Newton a sentimentalist for standing on the shoulders of giants?


message 6: by Thomas (last edited Dec 02, 2015 08:19PM) (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Earlier there was a question about Emerson's view of good and evil. I find this passage a bit shocking, and perhaps flat wrong, but fascinating nevertheless:

I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — "But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.

Ashton Nichols relates in his Great Courses series that Emerson once said that if he were ever to find himself in hell, he would "make a heaven there."


message 7: by David (new)

David | 2614 comments Thomas wrote: "I suppose he must mean that it is better to think for oneself rather than to latch onto popular opinion."

That is fine within some bounds of reason and allowing for standing on the shoulders of giants as you said. But I hope he includes a big part of his essay on learning from one's mistakes because if I just trust my instincts and go on impulse, I'm going to make a lot of them.

Most of his advice seems better suited to "artists" of all types rather than non-artist.


message 8: by David (last edited Dec 03, 2015 02:02PM) (new)

David | 2614 comments Thomas wrote: "Was Newton a sentimentalist for standing on the shoulders of giants?"

Shame on Newton? Or, is an original/new synthesis of other ideas OK?


message 9: by David (new)

David | 2614 comments "Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist. . ."

It is easy to imagine that Mr. Emerson would think very little of Bleak House's Mrs. Jellyby and her "Farsighted Philanthropy"


message 10: by Ashley (new)

Ashley Adams | 327 comments "It is easy in the world to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

Maybe Emerson isn't advocating the life of a hermit after all. :)


message 11: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5012 comments @9David wrote: "It is easy to imagine that Mr. Emerson would think very little of Bleak House's Mrs. Jellyby and her "Farsighted Philanthropy" ..."

Doctors without Borders? Heifer Intl? GiveDirectly?....


message 12: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments David wrote: "But I hope he includes a big part of his essay on learning from one's mistakes because if I just trust my instincts and go on impulse, I'm going to make a lot of them."

That's a great point, and I think he does, though perhaps not in this essay. (I am thinking of "Compensation," which came up in another thread.) Mistakes are inevitable, I would think. But they should be original mistakes, not mistakes made by following the crowd, and they should be treated as opportunities for correction (discipline) and growth. Emerson seems to think this all operates very simply and naturally (of course) but I'm not so sure it isn't more complicated than that.


message 13: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments David wrote: "
Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
Shame? ..."


These introductory comments by Emerson stuck out to me also. Who has not had a similar experience when reading? There is a strange sort of play on vanity though, I think.

"The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain"

I think this applies perfectly to Emerson's writings so far. After reading him, I want to go camping. I want to sit in the forest. I am filled with a new appreciation for nature (N?). But so far, and I know I have already said this as have others, there is a lack of coherence in his thoughts.


message 14: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Thomas wrote: "Earlier there was a question about Emerson's view of good and evil. I find this passage a bit shocking, and perhaps flat wrong, but fascinating nevertheless:

I remember an answer which when quite..."


Relative truth. Based on such thinking, what basis does he have for criticizing society or his fellow man? I mean, he was an abolitionist, right? If right and wrong are easily transferrable, what basis does he have for calling slavery wrong? (Of course, I think it is wrong. I am just curious how he works these questions out, or indeed, if he does.)


message 15: by David (new)

David | 2614 comments Genni wrote: "After reading him, I want to go camping. I want to sit in the forest. I am filled with a new appreciation for nature (N?)"

And I want to avoid the shame of not expressing this first. "I want to be a nonconformist, just like everyone else."


message 16: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments David wrote: "Genni wrote: "After reading him, I want to go camping. I want to sit in the forest. I am filled with a new appreciation for nature (N?)"

And I want to avoid the shame of not expressing this first...."


LOL!


message 17: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1717 comments It's fine that Emerson is willing to contradict himself, if he comes to realize that his former opinion was wrong, but he should draw from that the humility to realize that his current opinion may be wrong too.


message 18: by David (new)

David | 2614 comments I have heard the quote below is the common response to charges of Transcendental contradictions.

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

Walt Whitman

This is more of an excuse than an explanation and even less of any acknowledgment of a mistake.


message 19: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments David wrote: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

I would think that is excusable, maybe even desirable, in a poet, but not in a philosopher. For accountability is expected of the latter, not so much the former.


message 20: by Nemo (last edited Dec 05, 2015 02:38PM) (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Isn't it a contradiction already that one has to be taught by someone else to rely on himself? Where is the originality?


message 21: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments David wrote: "
Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
Shame? ..."


Precisely the note I made marginally as I re-read. I don't see this as shameful either.


message 22: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: "Earlier there was a question about Emerson's view of good and evil. I find this passage a bit shocking, and perhaps flat wrong, but fascinating nevertheless:

I remember an answer which when quite..."


I can think of a number of national leaders in the past who have taken Emerson's stated position to the great detriment of humankind.


message 23: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Lily wrote: "@9David wrote: "It is easy to imagine that Mr. Emerson would think very little of Bleak House's Mrs. Jellyby and her "Farsighted Philanthropy" ..."

Doctors without Borders? Heifer Intl? GiveDirect..."


Emerson, if he kept this opinion, would be appalled at the modern socialist state.

Whereas Thoreau went to jail (albeit very briefly) for refusing to pay taxes for war, the implication in Emerson seems to be that he would go to jail for refusing to pay taxes for public welfare, or at least strongly oppose doing so.

Were he alive today, would he be an ardent Tea Partier? [g]


message 24: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5012 comments Yes, but there are probably still relevant differences between private charity and government funded programs. Not but what Federal funding is often available and provided for charitable organizations. And, yes, tax breaks do partially underwrite charitable donations.


message 25: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Emerson's criticism of "a preacher":
Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister?
A preacher may belong to an institution, but I don't see why it would necessarily prevent him from speaking spontaneously or examining things as a man, as well as a minister.

If a preacher's belief is at variance with that of the institution, and still preaches the latter, Emerson may have a point (as he himself resigned from such a position), but what gives him the right to judge "beforehand" others who choose to believe the doctrine of the institution after carefully examining it as a man? Do they not have the same freedom to preach from the pulpit as he does from the lecturing platform?

Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion.

If a man's conviction and opinion agree with that of the community, does it necessarily make him biased? What about the people who attach themselves to the opinions of the scientific community? Or the transcendentalist/idealist community, for that matter?


message 26: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Nemo wrote: "A preacher may belong to an institution, but I don't see why it would necessarily prevent him from speaking spontaneously or examining things as a man, as well as a minister. "

Perhaps orthodoxy was a stronger force in the pulpit then than it is now? There were books of sermons published, and it's my understanding that many preachers preached mostly from the published sermons, which would validate Emerson's point to a considerable degree.


message 27: by Nemo (last edited Dec 06, 2015 09:11PM) (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments I think Emerson's point is that a preacher looses spontaneity and authenticity merely by virtue of being part of a religious organization. That doesn't ring true to me. Many preachers of orthodoxy are among the most spontaneous and authentic that I've read, for instance, the Bishop of Hippo.

As for preaching from published sermons, isn't the Bible a collection of published sermons? For that matter, Nature is also the published sermon of God -- I think Emerson would agree, as he encourages us to take moral lessons from Nature. So there is nothing wrong about preaching from "published sermons" per se.


message 28: by David (new)

David | 2614 comments For Nemo 25,27
"If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument."
You aren't going to expect a Baptist service from a Catholic priest and you aren't going to expect a christian minister to base a sermon on passages from the Koran, or in Emerson's day, Eastern religious ideas incorporated into a Protestant service.

I would like to think that it is in part due to Emerson's legacy that we are less surprised by and more or less tolerant of these sorts of deviations today.


message 29: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments David wrote: "For Nemo 25,27
"If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument."

The same can be said of Emerson himself.

He has his own set of beliefs, just like other people, religious or not. Obviously, if one believes something is true, he is not going to deviate from it, unless he is persuaded otherwise, or changes his mind on a whim.

What I don't understand is how having beliefs in and of itself would render people less spontaneous or authentic.


message 30: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Nemo wrote: "I think Emerson's point is that a preacher looses spontaneity and authenticity merely by virtue of being part of a religious organization. That doesn't ring true to me. Many preachers of orthodoxy ..."

I agree.


message 31: by Thomas (last edited Dec 07, 2015 07:21PM) (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments I think what Emerson objects to is consistency for consistency's sake. Take cooking, to choose a controversial subject (in my house, anyway). My wife insists that a recipe is not Holy Writ; it is in most cases just a suggestion and meant to be altered as necessary. I resist this, because I am a "textualist". (My wife has a different word for this.) I believe that the expert, the author, knows more than I do, and that I should follow directions as closely as possible to achieve optimal results.

But I am learning, slowly, that she is right and I am wrong. The recipe can change with the circumstances. Substitutions may be made when called for. Alternative techniques are not only acceptable, they are sometimes necessary, and the result is a better dish. I am getting more comfortable with not following the recipe, following my own instincts, and my cooking is improving. I think this is what Emerson is getting at -- an authentic life is made according to one's experience and understanding, rather than rules or guidelines. And this includes one's own rules, because they change over time, as they should, because people change and grow and learn.


message 32: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments What I found most interesting in re-reading SR is less Emerson's ideas, though those are interesting enough, but the enormous changes in our national mind over the past nearly 200 years.

For example, he writes "I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency." But conformity and consistency are increasingly potent today in this age of what is generally termed political correctness, though I think we need a better term for it. But there is a very high expectation, even requirement, of conformity and consistency on many modern issues (I think, for example, of the rights of women and minorities, same sex marriage, climate change, to name just a few) where nonconforming ideas are seriously disparaged at best and can lead to losing a job or threats of violence at worst.

Another change we talked about earlier is the almost universal rejection of Emerson's alms to sots and Relief Societies, where he considers giving a dollar of alms is shameful and unmanly.

And when he says that "the only right is what is after my constitution" is he, to play the Hitler card (at some point in almost every discussion somebody has to play the Hitler card!) saying that Hitler was right to follow his constitution?

So here's a question: if Emerson were alive today and trying to live by the philosophy he lays out in Self Reliance, would he be respected by those we today would call responsible citizens, and even could he stay out of jail?


message 33: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Were I teaching SR in a high school senior class today, I would probably assign an essay as follows: "Emerson states that "with consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." Discuss, using at least one example of a person who you consider to have or, if the person is dead, to have had, a great soul.


message 34: by David (new)

David | 2614 comments Everyman wrote: "And when he says that "the only right is what is after my constitution" is he, to play the Hitler card (at some point in almost every discussion somebody has to play the Hitler card!) saying that Hitler was right to follow his constitution?"

I wonder what Emerson would think of people who shoot up Planned Parenthood centers?

We could stay more in context with Emerson's time and play the John Brown card. But, Thoreau is coming up.


message 35: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Everyman wrote: "Emerson states that "with consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." Discuss, using at least one example of a person who you consider to have or, if the person is dead, to have had, a great soul. "

One of the examples Emerson (and Nietzsche) used is Julius Caesar, who I think would be as hateful as Hitler in ancient Rome, at least to those peoples whom he enslaved and slaughtered: the Gauls, the Brits, and the Spaniards, etc.; on the other hand, he was also brilliant without equal in the whole Roman Republic -- his opponents had to resort to assassination, after being defeated by him in war.

Who we consider a great soul is more a reflection on our own characters than on the person considered, imo.


message 36: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5012 comments Everyman wrote: "Discuss, using at least one example of a person who you consider to have or, if the person is dead, to have had, a great soul. ..."

The kids I know from the generation following might well deny or at least heavily question the existence of such a thing as a soul.


message 37: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Everyman wrote: "So here's a question: if Emerson were alive today and trying to live by the philosophy he lays out in Self Reliance, would he be respected by those we today would call responsible citizens, and even could he stay out of jail? "

On the other hand, Emerson also believes that people are good by nature. He does not define what "good" means exactly, and this is a problem philosophically, but in practical terms I think it rules out Hitler. I think I prefer David's alternative, John Brown: as an abolitionist, how did Emerson deal with a man who promoted violence and murder as a conscientious act?


message 38: by Lily (last edited Dec 07, 2015 09:55PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5012 comments Everyman wrote: "...But there is a very high expectation, even requirement, of conformity and consistency on many modern issues (I think, for example, of the rights of women and minorities, same sex marriage, climate change, to name just a few) where nonconforming ideas are seriously disparaged at best and can lead to losing a job..."

My own experience has been that conformity and consistency, often on what seemed to many of us to be trivial matters -- as well as serious ones, were far greater requirements in the '50's and early '60's than after the social upheavals that followed.

"All men created equal" -- some such nonsense of a vision of justice?


message 39: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Lily wrote: "All men created equal "

Tell that to Salieri!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9NG_...


message 40: by David (new)

David | 2614 comments Thomas wrote: "...how did Emerson deal with a man who promoted violence and murder as a conscientious act?"

He praised John Brown for being and idealist who acted on his ideals at a memorial service for him in Boston.
http://www.themorgan.org/blog/ralph-w...


message 41: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1717 comments Emerson does not seem to have much of a notion of Original Sin, or of a fallen human nature.


message 42: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Thomas wrote: ".. I think this is what Emerson is getting at -- an authentic life is made according to one's experience and understanding, rather than rules or guidelines"

That is a good point.

If I understand you correctly, rules and guidelines are from external sources, not belonging to a man's own nature, whereas experience and understanding are internal, or at least internalized and having become a man's (second) nature. I think that is consistent with what Emerson is saying in general.

What I haven't figured out is why Emerson thinks his "brothers" in organized religions are not operating from within, or grounded in experience and understanding.


message 43: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Roger wrote: "Emerson does not seem to have much of a notion of Original Sin, or of a fallen human nature."

He says "a man is a god in ruins" in his essay Nature, but he is quite vague about what causes the ruin or how to repair it.


message 44: by Nemo (last edited Dec 08, 2015 09:15AM) (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments David wrote: "Thomas wrote: "...how did Emerson deal with a man who promoted violence and murder as a conscientious act?"

He praised John Brown for being and idealist who acted on his ideals at a memorial servi..."


The people whose outward actions correspond with their inner beliefs, whatever those beliefs might be, are indeed authentic on some level, even if authentically bad as opposed to hypocritically good.


message 45: by David (new)

David | 2614 comments Nemo wrote: "The people whose outward actions correspond with their inner beliefs, whatever those beliefs might be, are indeed authentic on some level, even if authentically bad as opposed to hypocritically good."

Is Emerson placing "authenticity" in the role normally played by religion as the authority behind an action?

If so I wonder how it works with these thoughts?
"Certainly any one [Emerson? the Self?] who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices."
But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion authenticity?



message 46: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5012 comments Nemo wrote: "The people whose outward actions correspond with their inner beliefs, whatever those beliefs might be, are indeed authentic on some level, even if authentically bad as opposed to hypocritically good."

:-) I like the way you said that, Nemo. If I remember it, I'll probably use that sentence someplace.


message 47: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments David wrote: "Is Emerson placing "authenticity" in the role normally played by religion as the authority behind an action?"

The short answer is yes. If I follow Emerson's line of reasoning, I'd answer that authenticity excludes absurdity, because man is a rational being by nature. IF he acts in accord with his true nature, he must necessarily act rationally; To put it another way, because divinity is within man and divinity is good, if man acts authentically, he must necessarily do what is good and divine.

However, Emerson seems also "realistic" enough to suggest that men are neither rational or divine, while excluding himself from this general statement.


message 48: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5012 comments Nemo wrote: "...while excluding himself from this general statement...."

[g] And when Nemo gets a pen in his hand, or fingers on a keyboard, ....


message 49: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Nemo wrote: "What I haven't figured out is why Emerson thinks his "brothers" in organized religions are not operating from within, or grounded in experience and understanding. ."

Emerson goes into this a bit more in "The Divinity School Address," where he makes clear that what he opposes is formalism, not the religion of the heart. And he knows that there are "pious men" of this sort in the churches; nevertheless, he bemoans those who pay higher respect to the church than they do their own souls.

Let me not taint the sincerity of this plea by any oversight of the claims of good men. I know and honor the purity and strict conscience of numbers of the clergy. What life the public worship retains, it owes to the scattered company of pious men, who minister here and there in the churches, and who, sometimes accepting with too great tenderness the tenet of the elders, have not accepted from others, but from their own heart, the genuine impulses of virtue, and so still command our love and awe, to the sanctity of character. Moreover, the exceptions are not so much to be found in a few eminent preachers, as in the better hours, the truer inspirations of all, — nay, in the sincere moments of every man.


message 50: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Nemo wrote: "

He says "a man is a god in ruins" in his essay Nature, but he is quite vague about what causes the ruin or how to repair it.


Emerson is quite vague about a lot of things. Emerson scholar Wesley Mott says that people who attended Emerson's lectures "went away tremendously uplifted—and had no idea what they just heard.”

But I am glad to have learned now what Melville meant in Moby Dick by "Plato's honey head." Apparently Melville was an anti-transcendentalist, and while I don't know if he was referring specifically to Emerson here, the phrase makes more sense to me if he was.

Now, had Tashtego perished in that head, it had been a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale. Only one sweeter end can readily be recalled - the delicious death of an Ohio honey-hunter, who seeking honey in the crotch of a hollow tree, found such exceeding store of it, that leaning too far over, it sucked him in, so that he died embalmed. How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato's honey head, and sweetly perished there?

--Moby Dick, "Cistern and Buckets"


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