In "Self-Reliance," how did Emerson view the prayers of the people?

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In "Self-Reliance," Emerson regards the prayers of most people, which are prayers of petition for worldly goods or favors, to be "vicious." These prayers are wrong-headed, in his opinion, because they rest on the assumption of a dualism between God and humans. In this thinking, God is a benefactor, up in heaven, separate from us. As Emerson puts it:

But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness.

Actually, Emerson says, God is within us. We are united with God. Therefore, our prayers should be expressed through our actions, not our words. When a farmer, for instance, kneels in a garden bed to weed it, he is kneeling in prayer. When a rower kneels in his boat to pull the oars, this is prayer. When we show our oneness with God and our awareness of seeing life and the universe through the eyes of the highest good, this is prayer.

This connects with Emerson's idea that our life work should spring not from tradition, convention, or what our parents tell us to do, but from the divine source within us; then our lives become a form of prayer.

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Emerson complains that mainstream prayer practices are petty and self-serving. He also complains that they presuppose a patron-client relationship with God. People often use prayer as an opportunity to act or beg God for a favor. Emerson sees prayer as a letter asking an external benefactor for outside help:

Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue.

This sharply contrasts with Emerson's ideas of what true prayer should be:

Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good.

If we unpack Emerson's words, we find several points. First, true prayer isn't supposed to be about registering personal dissatisfaction and asking for a remedy. It's supposed to be about contemplating the big picture and rising above one's immediate circumstances to appreciate the excellence of God's works in general. It's supposed to be an expression of joyful approval, not a letter of complaint or plea for help.

Second, the whole notion of God as a separate entity is wrong. When we pray, we should be turning inward to the part of ourselves that is part of God. We share God's spirit, see things from God's point of view, and rejoice in creation.

The common approach to prayer is entirely off the mark. It separates human beings from the spirit of God, and turns prayer into a petition for a bail-out.

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