Ralph Waldo Emerson

Start Free Trial

What does Emerson say is every person's destiny?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born a New Englander and later became a transcendentalist, and these two formative aspects of his life contributed to his sturdy belief in self-reliance. His essay entitled "Self-Reliance" is probably his most loved and quoted. Emerson saw destiny as a process of individual self-discovery, not something bestowed on human beings by accident or by God. This can be seen seen in the following quote from his "Natural History of Intellect":

The bitterest tragic element in life to be derived from an intellectual source is the belief in a brute fate or Destiny.

Emerson's view of destiny was directly at odds with certain Christian thinking, such as Calvinism, which preached that God controlled human destiny and all believers could do was be subordinate to that control. By contrast, Emerson as a transcendentalist believed in the inherent power, purity, and goodness of the individual, in a human being’s right to personal freedom, and most importantly, in the power of self-reliance. His view of destiny is that it is handmade by the individual. In "Self Reliance," Emerson says,

Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.

This quote can be seen as the core idea in Emerson’s view of destiny.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Being a Transcendentalist, Emerson seeks an answer to the question of individual destiny through an emotional sphere. Striving to establish an answer devoid of social conformity and traditionalist notions of the good, Emerson directs the answer inward. Emerson believes that if individuals can find the element of their own voice within their own sense of self, their destiny will be understood and fully embraced. Each individual possesses a unique sense of destiny and spirit within them, and being able to "hear" and "see" this through personal reflection will allow them to embrace what is rightly theirs. That individual destiny is inscribed within an inner self that is always true and good. "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." This idea of "Self- Reliance"—the title of his essay to demonstrate this idea—helps to enhance this idea that the sense of individual destiny lies waiting to be realized inside the hearts and minds of individuals.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial