In “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson urges people to develop an individual relationship with God that is based in their own encounter with the divine and understanding of mortality. He asks,
Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being?
These two parallel sentences both offer a contrast between two generations and more generally between the past and the present. The acorn is analogous to the child, and the full-grown oak tree is like a parent because the acorn is the tree’s seed. He presents these ideas as rhetorical questions in part to call attention to the metaphors he is using.
Prior to these lines, Emerson was discussing how each person’s soul relates to “the divine spirit.” Because each person encounters for themselves whatever God has created, it is as if everything had just been created whenever a person sees it for the first time. Such a novel instance of receiving divine wisdom makes everything that came before far less meaningful.
Emerson encourages others to be suspicious of ideas that are firmly attached to the past. Just before the quoted lines, he warns,
If … a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not.
Emerson regards such old religious philosophies as not merely useless but dangerous as they block people from having their own direct, unmediated experience of God.