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Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

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1 Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”
HMXP 102

2 American Romanticism Emerson was part of the Romantic movement in literature. In particular, this movement emphasized two important things: Humans’ connection with nature The importance of emotion and imagination over reason

3 Major Concept: Transcendentalism
"A reliance on the intuition and the conscience....  The group [of transcendentalists] seemed to agree that within the nature of human beings there was something that transcended human experience--an intuitive and personal revelation."  "Transcendentalists believed in living close to nature and taught the dignity of manual labor.  They strongly felt the need of intellectual companionships and emphasized spiritual living.  Every person's relation to God was to be established directly by the individual rather than through a ritualistic church.  They held that human beings were divine in their own right, an opinion opposed to the doctrines held by the Puritan Calvinists in New England.  Self-trust and self-reliance were to be practiced at all times, because to trust self was really to trust the voice of God speaking intuitively within us.  The transcendentalists believed in democracy and individualism."  "The transcendentalists were among the early advocates of the enfranchisement of women."  "Ultimately...transcendentalism was an epistemology—a way of knowing—and what tied together the frequently contradictory attitudes of the loosely formed group was the belief that human beings can intuitively transcend the limits of the senses and of logic and directly receive higher truths denied to more mundane methods of knowing." Source: Harmon and Holman's A Handbook to Literature, my emphasis (courtesy of Dr. Matt Fike)

4 The Main Points We should rely on intuition and the conscience.
The importance of intuition and personal revelation. Living close to nature is good. There is dignity in manual labor. Intellectual companionships are important. Spiritual living is key. Every person's relation to God can be established directly. Human beings are divine. Self-trust and self-reliance are important virtues. So are democracy and individualism. Women should be able to vote.  “Human beings can intuitively transcend the limits of the senses and of logic and directly receive higher truths.”

5 Writing in Class Write for 5 minutes in response to these two questions: What is YOUR definition of self-reliance. Identify an example of self-reliance or its opposite from your personal experience.

6 Group Work: 10 minutes Share your definition in 5 small groups of 4-5 people apiece.  Then do the following three things:  Come up with a definition of "self-reliance" to share with the class. Fill out the chart on the Emerson handout (use arrows to indicate which column each item belongs in) Consider how what you just discovered about Emersonian self-reliance relates to Transcendentalism. Mark the items on the handout that best illustrate Transcendentalism.

7 Whole-class Discussion
What is your group’s definition of "self-reliance“? Let’s go over the chart and make sure that your arrows are correct. Which items on the chart best illustrate Transcendentalism?

8 Large-group Discussion
Do you advocate Emersonian self-reliance or not?  Do you really think that your own “inner voice” is more important than thinking, for example, what the Christian church—or some other faith—tells you to believe? If you agree with Emerson, what does this imply about your inner resources?

9 Connections to Other Texts
Plato—truth? Lakoff & Johnson—truth, metaphor? Mill—liberty of thought and discussion?

10 Connections to Other Texts
Plato:  "his shadow on the wall" (Emerson 60).  Plato and Emerson are both opposed to false appearances.  But Plato thinks that Truth is transcendent; Emerson thinks that truth is whatever one thinks it is. How so? Emerson 59-60:  "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius."   Lakoff and Johnson would argue that believing your own truth is a prescription for discord with other people and nations. Why? In addition, many of Emerson’s statements contain metaphors. Mill:  Various issues: Would Emerson approve of the liberty of thought and discussion?  Would he agree with Mill on the negative (restrictive) role of the church and of its dogmas?  Would Emerson agree with Mill on the following:  "Those who desire to suppress it [opinion]...have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging" (42)?

11 More on Mill and Emerson
Mill 42: "Those who desire to suppress it [opinion]...have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging." Emerson 59-60: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” WHO IS RIGHT?

12 More Group Activity On the next slide are further questions for your group. If you finish talking about your group’s item, go on to one of the others.

13 Group Work: What Does Emerson Say about Each of These?
1. Great men and institutions (60, left; 62, left and right; 63, right; 64, left): How can a particular brand of thinking be great when it is fresh but then negative when it becomes an institution?  Can't one be self-reliant in Emerson’s sense while still adhering to an intellectual tradition? If even great men do not break wholly from tradition, is tradition really as negative as Emerson wants us to believe? 2. Independence (60, right): Is there a problem with living "wholly from within“ (61, left; my emphasis)?  Doesn't society perform an important civilizing function? 3. The shadow/sinfulness (“Chaos and the Dark,” 60, left): Is there a problem with living “wholly from within”—i.e., in communication with “the inner ocean” (55, left)?  Doesn’t Emerson’s prescription for self-reliance rest on the assumption that what is within is wholly good?  How might Transcendentalism be fundamentally flawed?  What do YOU believe about your inner life?  Is it all “sugar and spice and everything nice”? Isn’t there also darkness? 4. History (62, right): Does Emerson have an “elitist” view of history? Might a society that pays attention to historical lessons be able to advance?  If not, why not?  Is it because of the human nature that he considers so positive?  Couldn't learning history's lessons help us avoid repeating past mistakes? 5. Travel (63, right): Do you agree or disagree with Emerson's position on travel?

14 Great Men and Institutions
Emerson lauds Moses, Plato, Jesus, and Milton; however, he is critical of institutions as “the lengthened shadow[s] of one man.”  Emerson simply doesn’t understand literature.  He says, “Every great man is a unique” (63, right column, bottom), and he mentions Moses, Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare as examples.  But while, say, Milton did new things, he relied heavily on previous literature. Mention the New Historical view of authorship as collaborative. How can a particular brand of thinking be great when it is fresh but then negative when it becomes an institution?  Can't one be self-reliant in Emerson’s sense while still adhering to an intellectual tradition? But he does not acknowledge that all of these men, to one degree or another, relied on previous tradition even as they created something unique and new.  If even great men do not break wholly from tradition, is tradition really as negative as Emerson wants us to believe?

15 Authors “…works of art are the products not merely of an individual writer’s genius but also of the culture that produced that writer.” Source: Russ McDonald, The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd ed., page 12

16 More on Great Men Do you agree that the best way to cultivate the self is to be self-reliant in the Emersonian sense?  What can we learn about the self from previous writers, existing institutions, history, and travel?  Why throw out all of this and say, "It's all up to ME"?  If previous writers do not matter, why should we bother to read Emerson?  Isn't there something self-indicting about his position?

17 Independence How would Emerson react to the Univ. of Chicago’s “Great Men” approach to training future leaders by studying the past? Is there nothing to be learned from the past? Is there a problem with living "wholly from within"?  Doesn't society perform an important civilizing function? 

18 The Shadow/Sinfulness
Again, is there a problem with living “wholly from within”—i.e., in communication with “the inner ocean”?  Jung says that this "inner ocean" is the collective unconscious, which contains a record of all human experience both positive AND negative.  See also Romans 7:18-20:  "For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me."  Is Emerson getting at this on 60 when he mentions “Chaos and the Dark”? Doesn’t Emerson’s prescription for self-reliance rest on the assumption that what is within is wholly good?  How might Transcendentalism be fundamentally flawed?  What do YOU believe about your inner life?  Is it all “sugar and spice and everything nice,” or is there also darkness?

19 History Emerson states that “history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be any thing more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming” (62, right column, middle).  Later he says, “Society never advances” (64, left).  Well, maybe that is because it views history as impertinent and does not learn anything from it.  Might a society that pays attention to historical lessons be able to advance?  If not, why not?  Is it because of the human nature that he considers so positive?  Couldn't learning history's lessons help us avoid repeating past mistakes?

20 Travel Emerson states, “Traveling is a fool’s paradise” (63, right column, middle), but who we are is somewhat dependent on our place and time.  Traveling strips away cultural accretions and enables us to understand ourselves (our SELVES) more clearly and fully.  Yes, we are the same abroad as we are in Rock Hill, but REALIZING that fact is a good reason to travel, isn’t it? Why else do you think that college students often study abroad?  Do you agree or disagree with Emerson's position on travel?

21 Contrasting Views on Travel
Emerson: “Traveling is a fool’s paradise.” Watts: “Nothing tends so much to enlarge the mind as travelling.” St. Augustine: “The world is a book; those who never leave home read only a page.” T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”

22 Papers Take a good quotation and evaluate it in connection with your own experience. Here are some suggestions: 61: Emerson’s statements against charity or the church. 62: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” 63: “Traveling is a fool’s paradise.”

23 Summary and Implications
What is Emerson suggesting about your SELF? In other words, in what ways do you understand your SELF better after having read and discussed Emerson? Jot down a few ideas.

24 Use the “Fallacy Handout” To Identify the Following Fallacies
Page 61:  "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." Page 62:  "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." Page 62:  "Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design;--and posterity seem to follow his steps as a train of clients." Page 62:  "...all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons." Page 63:  "...I obey no law less than the eternal law." Page 63:  "Traveling is a fool's paradise." Page 64:  "All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.  Society never advances."

25 Some Possible Answers We should think in ways that are independent of others, history, tradition, and institutions (especially the church). We should trust and cultivate our inner voice, our intuition, and our unconscious resources. END


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