What does Emerson mean by "that divine idea which each of us represent" in his essay "Self-Reliance"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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When Ralph Waldo Emerson uses the phrase "that divine idea each of us represent," he means the uniqueness of each person as conceived by God.

In his essay "Self-Reliance," Emerson urges all people to trust in their abilities and express themselves because he finds sanctity in the individual mind. He calls upon individuals to express their feelings and "that divine idea" with vigor rather than with diffidence:

The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that in which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

Urging each person to "[T]rust thyself," Emerson further encourages individuality because a rigid consistency in action and thought does not permit people to change and fulfill their potential. Since each person is an individual, Emerson wants his listeners to express themselves in strong words, even if what they say contradicts what they said the previous day. They just need to be true to themselves and trust themselves by applying their own standards--that "divine idea"--to what they think and do rather than following convention.

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yaday | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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Emerson's "Self-Reliance" is a work which strongly promotes his philosophy of individualism.   Emerson, at the beginning of the essays, speaks of a time where every man comes to a halt in his own education and realizes nothing more can be bestowed upon him through traditional methods.   Humans are placed in a position where they can catch "one ray" if it were to fall, and that "we but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represent."  Emerson preaches not selfishness but the presence of divine spirit in every individual.   This concept embodies the idea of Transcendentalism:  each individual has potential for goodness/greatness and in a way, is his own mini-god.   Emerson, in the essay, discusses that self-trust is the means by which we discover "that divine idea which each of us represents."   Rather than fighting for new means, Emerson emphasizes for people to accept the position "divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporories, the connection of events."   In other words, make greatness with one's current state of being.   

Compared to the early American thinkers, in particular, the Puritans, Emerson's views are highly radical/liberal.   Rather than having an elected few be in the company of the great spirit, all individuals have the potential to harness this direct power from God.    However, in order to do so, one must be independent aka "self-reliant."   

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