In "Self-Reliance," what does "the eye was placed where one ray should fall" mean?

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In "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson , the author encourages people to be self-reliant in seeking their future, as the title suggests. Each person is distinct and individual and must follow his or her own individual steps. Specifically, the author urges people to listen to their inner self...

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In "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author encourages people to be self-reliant in seeking their future, as the title suggests. Each person is distinct and individual and must follow his or her own individual steps. Specifically, the author urges people to listen to their inner self and follow their own path rather than the path they see others following or the path they believe society dictates for them. Do not look at others, according to the author, and think their path is the right one and so envy them. The wise man understands this, as Emerson writes:

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

“[T]hat envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide” suggests that to follow another person’s—or society’s—path is suicide because it kills individuality and the reader’s ability to realize his or her own true realities. Moreover, to envy or imitate others is a sign of ignorance because the truly educated person recognizes that they will only be fulfilled if they follow their individual path. Each person has their own “new” and personal contribution to make. Emerson continues in that same paragraph:

The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.

In writing, “The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray,” Emerson suggests that there is a reason that one person sees possibility in something, while another does not. In other words, one person sees the life of a city dweller and desires it, while another regards farm life as ideal. Emerson stresses that each person should be self-reliant. Each person should follow their own goals and realize their own individual strengths and not merely be social conformists.

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What Emerson is saying here is that every person's experience of the world is different. We cannot hope to imitate each other, or even to understand how somebody else perceives something, because we are all different people. We are individuals, and at a certain point in our educational growth, we recognize this and understand that the particular essence within us is "new in nature."

Emerson goes on to explain that we are all affected differently by different things—one face or image might have a huge impression on us, while somebody else might think nothing of that image and not even remember it. Referring to the "sculpture in the memory," Emerson is saying that we create our own reproduction in our mind of things we have seen, and the sculpture we create will be different to that created by a friend, even if we were both looking at the same thing. Our eye, our mind's eye, sees the image from the angle from which we viewed it—we are looking at the "ray" of our own experience falling upon the image.

We can recreate our experience only from our own perspectives, and sometimes we are afraid to express ourselves fully because we are ashamed of the fact that we perceive the world in a unique way. Emerson, by contrast, urges us to accept this about ourselves. Our own perceptions and perspectives are born of God's determinations for our lives.

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Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" also emphasizes the Transcendental concept of the importance of the individual and each individual's intuition which is the "eye" that receives the "ray" of intuition.  That Emerson stresses individualism is evidenced in the sentence that precedes,

Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact makes much impression on him, and another none.

In other words, each individual has his/her own intuitive experiences through he is "impressed" or not.  But, in addition to this concept of the individual, Emerson expresses the idea of the Over-Soul of which all men are a part:

We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's line, "The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray," reiterates what he has declared in his opening to "Self-Reliance."  That is, to believe in yourself and your own thoughts, and to believe those thoughts are true for others, is of paramount importance.  Indeed, Emerson's credo is "trust thyself."  For him, and for another great Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, the importance of independent thought and the openness to receive ideas intuitively are what make men individuals of worth.

 

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In the part of the paragraph before the line you cite, Emerson is talking about how people need to be themselves.  They have to realize that they are different from other people and that they should not try to be like other people.  This is one of the Transcendentalists' biggest ideas -- that you need to be yourself and not try to be what others think you should be.

This ties into the eye and the ray.  What this is saying is that each person has been made the way they are so that they can see their own truth.  The eye is the whole self and the ray is the truth.  So each person is put where they will receive the truth that is right for them.

I hope that makes sense to you...

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