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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first series of essays grew out of the public lectures he gave after resigning as pastor of the Second Church of Boston. Though a great number of parallels exist between the essays—”Love” and “Friendship” are clearly companion pieces, and the thesis of “Self-Reliance” is a corollary of the thesis of “History”—there is no intended coherence in the volume as a whole. The ideas expressed in Essays show the influence of German and British Romanticism; the German writers reached Emerson mostly through the Englishmen Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These tendencies of Romantic thought include the privileging of idealism over realism, imagination over reason, and the inner or psychological over the outer or objective. What was original in Emerson’s thought, however, arose from his own struggles with ecclesial authority and with his personal experience of the young American nation that was still inventing itself. Emerson’s peculiarly American form of Romanticism became known as “Transcendentalism,” the term he himself preferred.

Essays is an ecclectic gathering of a dozen essays in the following order: “History,” “Self-Reliance,” “Compensation,” “Spiritual Laws,” “Love,” “Friendship,” “Prudence,” “Heroism,” “The Over-Soul,” “Circles,” “Intellect,” and “Art.” Although there may be no significance to the order of all the essays, scholars since the mid-twentieth century have generally agreed that beginning the collection with “History” and “Self-Reliance” is significant. The notion that what is called “history” is not one immutable, objective reality, but something incarnated in the human individual, is the premise that leads not only to Emerson’s concept of over-soul but also to that of self-reliance. The over-soul connection is obvious when Emerson begins “History”—and, therefore, the whole collection of essays—with “There is one mind common to all individual men.” Less obvious is the connection with “Self-Reliance,” but the logic proceeds as follows: If everyone has equal access to this “common mind,” then no one has particular authority. The individual conscience is the highest moral authority. The ideas in Essays, therefore, overlap.


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“Self-Reliance” is, quite appropriately, Emerson’s most anthologized essay. Not only does it capture Emerson’s liberal mysticism, but it also captures the “spirit of the age” of nineteenth century Western thought and the essence of American individualism, which was just beginning to define itself. Emerson turns the Delphic oracle’s “know thyself” into “trust thyself,” which becomes a mantra echoing through the essay. Emerson posits a Philistine “Society” against which the individual must struggle. In a rare Socratic moment, this notion leads Emerson to a definition of the “self,” which, as the previous essay asserted, is part of the divine. It also leads to the criticism of organized religion, which, to the absolute individualist, is following somebody else’s creed.


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The influence of Eastern religion on Emerson’s thought can be seen most clearly in the next essay, “Compensation,” which is Emerson’s term for the law of Karma, or metaphysical checks and balances. The idea that all evils are punished metaphysically, regardless of whether the punishment comes materially or even in this world, is of course not exclusive to Eastern thought. It is seen throughout classical myths, and in Judeo-Christian thought (“as ye sow, so shall ye reap,” Galatians 6:7). However, Emerson goes beyond this concept of reciprocity to a very un-Western notion, the central moral tenet of the Bhagavad Gita, that from a divine vantage point, what appears evil to people may not be so. Emerson’s poem “Brahma” echoes the philosophy of “Compensation.”

“Spiritual Laws”

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The fourth essay, “Spiritual Laws,” springs organically from several points in the previous two essays. From the latter end of “Self-Reliance” Emerson resumes the criticism of organized religion or, more generally, systematic morality, by once again asserting the individual soul as the seat of morality. From “Compensation,” Emerson picks up the image of time smoothing the harshness of calamity. In fact, the closing paragraph of “Compensation” virtually blends into the first paragraph of “Spiritual Laws,” wherein Emerson demonstrates the propensity of memory for improving things. However, because the modern soul has been surrendered to system, even people’s virtues do not bring them happiness, as they ought. Unless people allow the spiritual laws of their own souls to dictate their morality, and not a cold and external system, they can neither do good nor be happy.

“Love” and “Friendship”

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The next two essays, “Love” and “Friendship,” are complementary essays that are most fruitfully read together. The first raises erotic love to a noble eminence as the foundation of all “domestic and civic relations” that “gives permanence to human society.” The second essay raises platonic friendship to the level of romantic love. Both essays follow directly from the premise laid down in “Self-Reliance,” but by a curious detour. “Self-Reliance” insists on the autonomy of the self, yet the very nature of love is a surrendering of self. Emerson gets around this difficulty by demonstrating that the paradox of love is that in giving one’s self to the beloved or the friend, one is not diminished but expanded. People do not lose their liberty in love but rather gain a higher liberty in releasing themselves. Here Emerson uses the image of the widening circle as an analogy, which he will explore in more detail in “Circles.”


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The individualism of “Self-Reliance” is continued in the next two essays. “Prudence” restates the critique of conventional morality as stifling, not just to the will but to the spirit as well. The essay stands as a marker for the change of the concept of prudence as a Christian virtue to that of prudery, which is almost a vice. The pejorative word “prude” had already been around for a century by Emerson’s time, but this essay stamped even the older and more positive word of “prudence” with a negative character. “Prudence” for Emerson becomes the watch-cry of the potentially self-reliant individual surrendering to the moral rule of the crowd rather than following “spiritual laws.”


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The irony that British essayist Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1838) inspired Emerson’s essay “Heroism” is compounded by the fact that virtually simultaneously with this essay, Carlyle published On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), expanding on the very ideas Emerson distilled. Indeed, Carlyle’s wife once complained that Emerson did not have a single idea that did not originate in Carlyle. Yet what is distinctly Emersonian in this essay is the equation of the heroic with the self-reliant. Those who surrender their dreams to the demands of society or convention never become heroes, though all have the capacity for heroism. The hero is one who maintains self-reliance despite opposition.

“The Over-Soul”

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The next essay, “The Over-Soul,” is almost as well-known as “Self-Reliance,” though notoriously more difficult. It is essentially Emerson’s digestion (or, some critics suggest, partial digestion) of German Transcendental philosophy of the early nineteenth century, though the idea in the West goes back to Plotinus. Emerson had already developed the image of a universal self from which the individual self, in Plotinus’s term, “emanates.” Here Emerson gives that universal self, if not a local habitation, at least a name: the over-soul.


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“Circles” develops one of the most crucial images of Transcendental thought, already established in “Love,” of the emanating self as the ever-widening circle. The opening sentence summarizes the image, and the essay: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” This image, embodying the pun of “eye-I,” expresses the central tenets of Transcendental philosophy: the dissolution of the mundane self into the higher self of the over-soul. It is this process of transcendence that gives the name to Emerson’s philosophy. Five years earlier, in Nature, Emerson had described the transcendental experience not only with the image of the circle but also with the image of the eye. As “all mean egotism vanishes,” he wrote, “I become a transparent Eyeball.” While the image leads easily to ridicule, recent scholarship has demonstrated that the widening spiral is both an apt description of Transcendental thought and an emblem for Emerson’s prose style, which abandons the linearity of classical style.


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In the penultimate essay of his 1841 volume, “Intellect,” Emerson not only echoes the preceding essay in describing the intellect as the outward-flowing circle of the self but also returns to the opening image of “History” as the record of the universal mind. People are “prisoners of our ideas,” he writes, a more negative expression of the hopeful statement in “History” that the ideas of the past can be claimed as people’s own. That inescapable doctrine of self-reliance returns at the end of the essay, where Emerson argues that the proper training of the intellect is toward resisting the potential “prison” of received ideas. The intellect must be as self-reliant as the soul.


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In the realm of art, the final essay in the volume, self-reliance takes the form of the relatively new Romantic aesthetic of “originality.” True to the image of the ever-widening circle, however, Emerson is not content simply to condemn imitation in art and lionize originality. Instead, the artist builds on the art of the past, enlarging and building upon the insights of previous artists. “Because the soul is progressive,” the essay begins, “it never quite repeats itself.” This statement has implications for Emerson’s circular style of expressing an idea by circling around it, repeating the central idea in slightly different forms. The artist, Emerson says, will use the language of his day to convey age-old truths, so that they are ever new. Yet Emerson also cautions the artist not to remove himself too much from the world in the idealism of creation; he minimizes the distinction between the “fine” and the “useful” arts.

Impact on American Thought

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Emerson’s Essays gave American Transcendentalism a philosophical and poetic language for expressing the peculiarly American form of individualism, especially as expressed in the political concept of civil disobedience (a phrase coined by Emerson’s friend and disciple, Henry David Thoreau). It can be argued, in fact, that the rest of the nineteenth century, especially the horror of the American Civil War (1861-1865), played out the conclusions of Emersonian self-reliance. It should be no surprise that the ideas of a New England liberal with abolitionist tendencies would find expression in a war fought in part for the self-determination of the nation’s black slaves. However, on the other hand, the very right of the Confederate states to their own self-determination also invokes the principle of self-reliance in the act of secession.

In metaphysics, Emerson’s claim of moral autonomy for the individual anticipates that of existentialism. In fact, his response to the anticipated objection of the traditoinal moralist, that such a philosophy is moral sloth, is almost verbatim that of Jean-Paul Sartre. “If any one imagines that this law is lax,” challenges Emerson, “let him keep its commandment one day.” The ideas of Emerson’s Essays continue to be felt, and his language of “Over-Soul,” “Self-Reliance,” and “Transcendentalism” can scarcely be avoided in modern discourse.


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Additional Reading

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981. An excellent biography, at once scholarly and readable. Deals with the personal as well as public side of Emerson and shows the evolution of his ideas by citing the stages of their development in journal entries, letters, essays, and poems.

Bode, Carl, ed. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969. Biographical sketches by Emerson’s friends and scholars that relate how his contemporaries viewed him and as well as how perspectives on him have changed since his death.


(The entire section is 410 words.)