What does Emerson say about traveling, and what does he mean by "whim"?

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perfectsilence | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

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Emerson essentially believes that traveling is overrated. He supports this perspective through an initial focus on "the idea" of places like Italy, England, and Egypt, and the fascination of "educated Americans" with them. He argues that those places only took on the grand, majestic ideas that they represent because "they who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth." Yes, those places are grand, but only because they so clearly represent the places that they are. The art and culture of Italy, England, and Egypt is authentic, and therefore significant. He continues, saying:  

The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

In other words, even when people must travel, they should retain the identity of their home and keep it with them as much as possible. Travelers must keep self and origin at the forefront; no matter where they are, they must be who they are and not become something else for the sake of the place they find themselves in. He goes on to say that he has no objection to traveling for "purposes of art, of study, and benevolence," but qualifies this by saying that the traveler must first be "domesticated [and] not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows." Emerson believes that people should not go elsewhere looking to obtain something that is not an inherent part of their character, as one who does so "travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins."

Emerson believes that travel to escape is a "fool's paradise." Locations are indifferent to our problems, and when we go to other places, we are simply the same people with the same problems in a different place. While this could come across as didactic, he includes himself among the fools, saying "[a]t home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from." In his mind, Emerson is also guilty of traveling for the wrong reasons. He continues in this vein, connecting travel to our restless natures:

Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the travelling of the mind? Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and the Distant. 

In true Transcendental fashion, he concludes this section with a focus on the true origin of inspiration and art:

The soul created the arts wherever they have flourished. It was in his own mind that the artist sought his model. It was an application of his own thought to the thing to be done and the conditions to be observed. And why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model? Beauty, convenience, grandeur of thought, and quaint expression are as near to us as to any, and if the American artist will study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of the government, he will create a house in which all these will find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also.

Here Emerson expands on the idea of travelling to study art and culture by suggesting that the study would lead to imitation, when what is really necessary, what is truly art, is original composition. By experiencing a true connection to home, an artist can create something that is truly authentic, representative of both self and place. It is in this approach that Emerson's whim is apparent. A whim should be trusted as a true indicator of self. Unlike traditional means of obtaining knowledge, a whim comes from within, and should be trusted. In this way a whim, as a true representation of the desires of the self, can lead to truth and art.

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sagetrieb | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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"whim" means "for the slightest reason," and Emerson uses this term to refer to the need for a person to respond to the genius within him and to rely on himself rather than wait for responses from others.  He says "I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me" (he does not mention husband, suggesting the gendered nature of his argument), and he should not need to give an explanation for his departure. Emerson goes on to say that hopefully it will be more than a whim that calls a man away, and he does this to temper what seems to be a hyperbole in the original statement.  But his point is that a man needs to rely on his intuition and to dare to be different.

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