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.