Who is the "Aboriginal Self" or the "Trustee" according to Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance"?

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In “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of “the aboriginal self: the “source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.”

For Emerson, the human soul is part of “that deep force… in which all things find their common origin.” He...

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In “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of “the aboriginal self: the “source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.”

For Emerson, the human soul is part of “that deep force… in which all things find their common origin.” He sees this divine spirit that unites the universe as the wellspring of the human soul and the source of intuition, or “primary wisdom.” Because we are one part of this universal spirit, we inherit its intellect and share its knowledge.

Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom, and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams.

Our wisdom, along with any knowledge of abstract ideals we have, is not something we have discovered or reasoned on our own. We have received it because we are connected to its source. Emerson believes that what we receive as intuition is a superior form of knowledge to that which we seek out and try to understand using our intellect and our own will.

Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He… knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed.

Because Emerson believes that intuition and perception are of divine origin, it follows that he is suspect of philosophies and systems that men have developed to help them understand God and mankind’s place in the world. These “helps” actually interfere with the relationship with the divine rather than facilitate it.

The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure, that it is profane to seek to interpose helps. It must be that when God speaketh he should communicate, not one thing, but all things… If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old moldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not.

Emerson laments that although humans contain divine wisdom, they are too “timid and apologetic” to think for themselves, especially concerning spiritual matters.

Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what David, or Jeremiah, or Paul… We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of grandames and tutors…

“Self Reliance” is Emerson’s exhortation to his contemporaries to own their divine nature.

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In "Self Reliance," Emerson takes a stance against conformity. In situations where individual integrity comes into conflict with social pressures and cultural norms, he suggests that resisting those pressures and remaining true to oneself represents the optimal moral path forwards. This essay is a celebration of personal authenticity: it argues that we ought to remain true to ourselves, even as society would try to shape us differently.

The key to this entire vision (and what Emerson refers to as an "aboriginal self" or "trustee") lies in his understanding of the human soul. There is a deeply spiritual and religious perspective in this essay—according to which all individual human beings ought to be perceived first and foremost as spiritual beings, containing within themselves a spark of divinity. Thus, individual experience becomes all the more essential because it is in the individual (and not the group) that this divine quality would manifest.

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Emerson's "aboriginal self" or "Trustee" is the intuition or "primary wisdom" that each of has been born with, if we would only access it. It comes from the divine spirit that is both within us and without us, and it precedes all "tuition" or knowledge that we are later taught in school or by society. It is this primal or first knowing that Emerson says we should put our trust in. It comes from God, and it is pure.

Emerson argues that when we pay attention to this aboriginal self or divine wisdom, our minds become simple and centered, filled with God's presence and guidance. When we receive this voice, everything secondary--"teachers, texts, temples"-- fades away. Attentiveness to this divine core focuses us on living in the present moment--the now--rather than in the past. It is this present moment and our intuition that we should rely on--hence, the title of the essay. We should be relying our deepest, purest, most intuitive self.

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The language Emerson uses in this essay can seem a little opaque to the modern reader. When he refers to the "Trustee," he is speaking quite literally: a "trustee" is, in this sense, a person in whom we put our trust, and to whom we entrust, in this context, ourselves. Emerson is talking about self-trust, self-reliance, and what he is asking here is: if we are trusting our selves, who or what is that self? How can we break ourselves down into our smallest constituent parts?

Emerson further defines that part of us to which we must trust ourselves as the "aboriginal self." Aboriginal, in this context, means something which has been there from the very beginning, before anything else arrived to dilute or alter it. The aboriginal self, then, is the nature of man unchanged by the vicissitudes of life. It is, as Emerson goes on to explain, our "essence," the part of us that births "Spontaneity" and "instinct." We must rely upon this essential, or "primary" wisdom and understanding when we choose to rely upon ourselves, rather than upon the "tuition" which has been lent to us in life. If we can trust our aboriginal selves, we will be guided by the purest instincts.

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Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance" expresses the theme of individuality in a society that is in conspiracy against the "manhood of every one of its members."  Whoever wishes to truly be a man must be a non-conformist.  He must put his trust not in kings, but in himself, accepting the place "the divine Providence" has for him.

Concomitant with the theme of individuality comes the concept of self-worth.  Emerson writes that the trust that men put in kings represents the awareness of their own rights as men.  Then he asks,

The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded?

The "aboriginal Self" is the individual soul of man, the Intuition.  Contending that when men trust themselves, they are actually trusting the divine, which exists in all men--not just kings.  Emerson calls this divine quality ‘‘the aboriginal Self," "Spontaneity," and "Instinct."  Thus, the "trustee" is not just kings, but all men.

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