Three Reasons Why Emerson's Frequent References to Famous Men Weaken His Argument

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Frequent references to historical figures and famous contemporaries are a hallmark of Emerson's essays, and the technique is prominent in "Self-Reliance.'' Emerson mentions scores of well-known men from a wide range of cultures, eras, and disciplines. Most of the men are named as positive examples of the traits Emerson associates with self-reliance. For example, in a single sentence Emerson names Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton as great men who were unaffected by society's disapproval. A few are given as examples of men who, through no fault of their own, are too much revered—men whose recorded thoughts and passed-down ideas are wrongly used by average people. The biblical David, Jeremiah, and Paul fall into this group. A few men, such as Islam's Caliph Ali and Zoroastrianism's founder, are quoted.

No matter how Emerson employs each one, his purpose in doing so is to strengthen his argument for self-reliance. For more than one reason, however, the use of these examples seems less effective than other means might have been. A few references are so vague that even scholars who study Emerson are not sure to whom they refer. Emerson habitually uses last names only. When he writes, ‘‘That is it which throws ... America into Adams's eye,’’ it is impossible to know which Adams he had in mind: Samuel, John, or John Quincy. Not knowing which Adams, the reader also does not know which trait or idea or action Emerson means to spotlight.

This vagueness occurs a few times and is frustrating but not a major stumbling block to understanding Emerson's central argument. But Emerson' s name-dropping does cause more serious problems. First, there is a logical inconsistency in using this technique in support of the particular argument Emerson is making in this essay. Second, many of the references become increasingly obscure as time marches on. And third, the fact that all those mentioned are men—and overwhelmingly European or white American men—detracts from Emerson's authority, again increasingly with the passage of time. Each of these three problems will now be considered in greater detail.

The logical inconsistency that is inherent in Emerson's leaning upon one famous shoulder after another is the most serious problem and has nothing to do with cultural changes over time. It is simply that Emerson's core argument that readers should ignore the great men of the past and instead trust themselves should prevent him from using the great men of the past to justify his own thinking. Emerson writes, in essence, that Moses, Plato, and Milton were exemplars of self-reliance and are now regarded as great men; therefore readers should follow in their footsteps. But there is a double contradiction here. First, given that Emerson is preaching ‘‘trust thyself,’’ why should he rely on Moses, Plato, and Milton, instead of on himself, to make his point? And second, given that Emerson wants readers to be nonconforming, original individualists, why should they care to become ‘‘great’’; i.e., why should they strive to be highly regarded by society or posterity?

An essayist has many different tools available for the building of an argument. Example is only one such tool; Emerson could have limited himself to other tools, such as reasons or facts, and avoided the awkwardness of using examples to support his argument for living life without examples. If he was determined to use examples, Emerson could have used less problematic ones; he might have used himself or, better yet, his readers as examples of the good results of self-reliance. Emerson could have declared that he himself had followed his principle of self-reliance and had thereby become successful and happy. Or, he could have asked readers to recall occasions when they had trusted themselves and had been proven correct. Either of these would have been a valid example in the context of Emerson's argument, and difficult to contest. But instead of taking either of these courses, Emerson made recourse to great men of the past, saying, in effect, that readers should exhibit self-reliance because these men did so and are now considered great. This line of reasoning is directly at odds with many statements throughout the essay.

Emerson writes, ‘‘There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that ... imitation is suicide.’’ Yet he urges readers to imitate Moses, Plato, and Milton, at least in the matter of self-reliance. ‘‘Don't imitate others,’’ Emerson seems to say, "except when the others are doing what I agree with.''

He writes, ‘‘Why all this deference to Alfred, and Scanderberg, and Gustavus?’’ Yet he shows deference to a host of other great men and strongly implies that readers should as well.

"Man is timid and apologetic,'' Emerson writes. ‘‘He does not say, 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage.’’ And then he himself quotes both saints and sages. As one final example, Emerson writes:

When the good is near you ... you shall not discern the footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience.

Of course, Emerson's own explanation of "the way'' is heavily tracked with footprints and populated with faces, and it rings with a roll call of names. Not content to present his own ideas as being ‘‘wholly strange and new,’’ Emerson embeds them in a roster of examples and other men's experiences.

Generations of readers attest that this recurring contradiction does not invalidate Emerson's argument, but it does weaken its force. It calls attention to the extreme nature of Emerson's position. While most readers can agree that some degree of self-reliance is good, close readers can also see that Emerson has set a standard for his readers that he as a writer is not able or willing to meet. While exhorting readers to ignore history and other men and rely only on themselves, Emerson repeatedly relies on history and other men.

The second problem with Emerson's wide-ranging references to men of the past is that some of these men have receded into obscurity with the passage of time. Many modern readers have no acquaintance with names such as Clarkson, Lavoisier, Hutton, Fourier, and many others mentioned by Emerson. More recent thinkers and doers have built upon their accomplishments and surpassed their fame, and only specialists in their fields know them. Emerson would say that this is exactly as it should be—that the old should continually be supplanted by the new. But this process does make his essay gradually less accessible and powerful. Even a footnote giving a one-sentence biography of the man behind the name doesn' t give today's readers a full understanding of the man's importance in his own time or in Emerson's. (A hundred years from now, a footnote explaining, ‘‘Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of the twentieth century" would not be sufficient to convey his stature in twentieth-century America.) It would require outside research to grasp why Emerson chose these particular men over others.

In Emerson's defense, it is quite possible that he never foresaw that his essay would endure as long as it has. Perhaps he expected that he would be supplanted just as Clarkson, Lavoisier, and company have been.

Finally, Emerson's exclusion of women and his near-exclusion of non-European men among his examples of greatness perhaps makes him less authoritative to modern readers than he might otherwise be. Emerson can be appreciated for including quotations from Islamic and Zoroastrian religious teachers. And it must be acknowledged that Frederick Douglass, who would have made an outstanding example of self-reliance, would not publish his best-selling autobiography until four years after the publication of "Self-Reliance." Emily Dickinson, practically Emerson's neighbor and a stellar example of self-reliance, was only a child in 1841; her poems would not become widely known and appreciated until the following century.

Still, among the New England transcendentalists there were accomplished women writers and activists who undoubtedly had to overcome societal disapproval in the course of their work and who would have made as good examples of self-reliance as some of the men featured. Also, as an abolitionist Emerson must have been aware of courageous black men and women of his time who were engaged in breaking the chains of history in just the way that Emerson celebrates. That Emerson did not think to preserve their names in his essay along with those of Moses, Plato, and Milton is unfortunate. It is also a sign that, as mightily as he roared against conformity and conventions, he himself sometimes failed to break through them.

Source: Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on ‘‘Self-Reliance,’’ in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Norvell is an independent educational writer who specializes in English and literature. She holds degrees in linguistics and journalism and has done graduate work in theology.

Portable Property

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To learn how to achieve this double abandonment we must turn to the best known of Emerson's essays, "Self-Reliance." If "Circles" was an attempt to discern the general laws governing human behavior, ‘‘Self Reliance’’ is an attempt to formulate a code of conduct for the individual believer, to answer the question: "What shall I do to be saved?''

Emerson had always conceived of the principle of self-reliance as an answer to the problem of individual salvation; one of his earliest explorations of the topic, a sermon entitled ‘‘Trust Yourself,’’ was preached as a commentary upon Matthew 16:26: ‘‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’’ In it Emerson had used a passage from an early journal that already contains the essence of the later doctrine:

Every man has his own voice, manner, eloquence, & just as much his own sort of love & grief & imagination & action. Let him scorn to imitate any being, let him scorn to be a secondary man, let him fully trust his own share of God's goodness, that correctly used it will lead him on to perfection which has no type yet in the Universe save only in the Divine Mind.

It was the gospel he had been sent that he might preach, the good news he had been chosen to proclaim. The topic was never far from his thoughts. In 1835, when he was chiding himself for his lack of literary productivity, listing things he felt were peculiarly his own, one of the topics was ‘‘the sublimity of Self-reliance.’’ As his thought widened and matured, his conception of the principle grew likewise, until it came to signify everything praiseworthy in the universe. If the "universal grudge'' was Emerson's term for the spirit behind every scheme of reform, self-reliance was the name he used to designate the means by which all schemes of reform were to be accomplished. "It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men,’’ he argues in the essay, ‘‘in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.’’ (That Emerson conceived of self-reliance as a revolutionary principle is particularly important to remember now, when his attacks on "miscellaneous popular charities’’ are in danger of making him sound like the most reactionary politicians. The latter should ponder the implications of Emerson's closing remarks—that ‘‘the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance'' before rushing to claim Emerson as one of their own.) Every subject that had attracted Emerson's attention in the turbulent years just past—the imitativeness of American literature, the "terror of opinion'' that made Americans moral cowards, the reliance upon property that engendered that terror, the futility of preaching that teaches the soul to look for help anywhere other than within itself, the necessity of training the soul to conceive of life as a perpetual process of abandonment—can all be treated under the general rubric of self-reliance. The essay as it stands is a kind of gigantic coda to the work of Emerson's decade of challenge. Some have found its very variousness distracting; Firkins, who concedes the essay's greatness, nevertheless complains that it lacks ‘‘tone’’; there is in the essay ‘‘a singularly mixed effect of anthem, eclogue, sermon, and denunciation.’’ Yet he admits that "no essay of Emerson contains so many phrases that are at the same time barbed and winged.''

In fact, the success of those phrases in establishing themselves as proverbial may be the greatest obstacle to the enjoyment of the contemporary reader, who may feel at first as though he is thumbing through a particularly worn copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Yet to the reader willing to look beyond the familiar phrases, attentive to the interplay of Emerson's many voices and to the startling redefinition of familiar terms those voices proclaim, the essay will shortly come to seem as strange and difficult as it really is.

It begins with a restatement of themes made familiar by The American Scholar: the self-reliant man who has the courage to make his own spontaneous impressions into universal symbols (as Wordsworth had done) will find himself triumphing over the tyranny of time.'' Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.’’ Hence Emerson's First Commandment: "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.’’ What Emerson means by self-trust is given to us, as usual, not by definition but by analogy: it is something like the pure self-centeredness of infancy, something again like the ‘‘nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner.’’ It is action without self-consciousness, action without concern for (or even awareness of) consequences—the sort of thing Blake had in mind when he praised Jesus as one who ‘‘acted from impulse, not from rules.’’

Unfortunately, this kind of self-trust is nearly impossible for a grown man to achieve; a grown man is ‘‘clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat’’—and Emerson is surely thinking here of his own experience after the Divinity School Address—"he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this.’’ The point is not that the man is incapable of telling the truth after once speaking with éclat; merely that he can never recapture that purer kind of innocence that consists in being unaware of the consequences. An orator who could somehow manage to free himself from this jail of self-consciousness, and ‘‘having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiassed, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence,’’ would make himself formidable; his opinions "would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.''

That Emerson is describing not himself but his possible hero, the figure he will later call the Central Man, is apparent from his use of the conditional mood; his own journals were there to remind him how far he was from his own ideal. One is inclined to suspect that his private chagrin is partly responsible for the uncharacteristic bitterness of the attack he now launches on the chief obstacle to self-trust. ‘‘Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.’’ Hence Emerson's Second Commandment: "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.’’

What follows this assertion is a violent and disturbing paragraph that seems to have been designed to contain something to offend everyone. Emerson begins by advocating, like Yeats, the casting out of all remorse. Later on in the essay he will define "prayer'' as "the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul’’; he here advances the same startling conception of penitence: "Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.’’ From these sublime heights of self-reliance he grandly condescends to answer the objections of the ‘‘valued adviser’’ who used to importune him with the ‘‘dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested—'But these impulses may be from below, not from above.' I replied, 'They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.’’'

The logic of this answer is like the logic of Blake's famous Proverb of Hell: ‘‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’’ Emerson is not advocating diabolism any more than Blake is advocating infanticide; the hyperbole is a way of suggesting the real ugliness of the alternative—in Emerson's case, maintaining a dead church, contributing to a dead Bible-society, worshipping a dead God. The word that needs stressing in Emerson's reply is not "Devil" but the verb "live'': it is better to live from the Devil than die with the church. "For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope,’’ as Ecclesiastes puts it in a verse Emerson might have cited here, "for a living dog is better than a dead lion.’’

Harriet Martineau had been impressed with the remarkable good-humor Americans displayed, their kindness and courtesy toward one another. She did not connect this quality, which she admired, with the want of moral independence she deplored, but Emerson did. "In this our talking America we are ruined by our good nature and listening on all sides." "Check this lying hospitality and lying affection.'' Self-reliance is impossible without honesty, and honesty sometimes entails a willingness to be rude. Emerson cannot yet claim that he has this willingness; ‘‘every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways’’ him more than is right. But he indulges in a fantasy of rudeness, imagines himself being able to speak the "rude truth'' first to a proselytizing Abolitionist, then to members of his own family. "I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.’’ The sentences are discreetly blasphemous: they allude both to Jesus' command to leave father and mother for his sake, and to God's directive to the children of Israel to mark with blood the lintel of the doorway, that the Angel of Death might pass over their houses and spare their firstborn. Emerson's redeemer is his genius (a theme he will develop with more explicitness later in the essay); his saving sign is a confession of irresponsibility and even triviality, designed to make the serious men—the controversialists, the paragraph writers—pass over his house as something beneath contempt. It resembles a similar passage in "Circles'' in its blend of irony and affected innocence:

But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head, and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.

Whim is only a provisional term; we hope that it will be replaced by something better than whim at last (what we hope it will be is the force he will later call Spontaneity or Instinct—though these terms are hardly more likely to recommend him to the orthodox) but we cannot spend the day in explanation, for the same reason that the children of Israel could not tarry to leaven their bread when Pharaoh finally agreed to let them go. As Cavell says, Emerson, in writing Whim upon the lintels, is ‘‘taking upon himself the mark of God, and of departure.... This departure, such setting out is, in our poverty, what hope consists in, all there is to hope for; it is the abandoning of despair, which is otherwise our condition.’’

But leaving the dead institutions of society behind is only half the task of departure. Our own past acts, as "Circles" points out, are governed by the same law of ossification visible in history as a whole. And leaving behind our own past insights may be even harder than rejecting the counsels of society, for we naturally possess a greater affection for our own past thoughts. Then, too, there is the fear that inconsistency will expose us to ridicule, that hardest of all crosses to bear. Emerson gave evidence early that he was not to be scared from self-trust by the hobgoblin of foolish consistency; the editor of his sermons tells of an incident in which Emerson interrupted his delivery of a sermon to say quietly to the congregation: "The sentence which I have just read I do not now believe,’’ and then went on to the next page.

Such determination to prefer truth to his past apprehension of truth also governs the choice of the example Emerson now inserts into "Self Reliance'' to illustrate what he means by having the courage to risk self-contradiction. He had always objected strongly to any Theism that described God as a Person. "I deny Personality to God because it is too little not too much,’’ he wrote in his journal. "Life, personal life is faint & cold to the energy of God.’’ This denial of personality to God was one of the things his auditors had found most offensive about the Divinity School Address. The sermon his former colleague at the Second Church, Henry Ware, Jr., had preached in objection to Transcendentalist ideas in September 1838 was called ‘‘The Personality of the Deity''; it regarded attempts to reduce God to an abstract set of laws or moral relations as ‘‘essentially vicious.’’ The Christian Examiner reviewed Emerson's address and Ware's sermon together, greatly to the detriment of the former.

Emerson's doctrine of Divine Impersonality had angered a whole community; the Address had helped end his career as a supply preacher in Unitarian pulpits, and for all he knew at the time, it might have ended his career as a lecturer. Yet now, in "Self-Reliance,'' he warns himself against making an idol of his own theology: "In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity; yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.’’ It is only after describing how these menaces to self-trust or abandonment are to be overcome that Emerson will consider the question posed by the trusted adviser whose earlier warnings he had scorned. "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 answer he gives, though, concerns not persons but powers: a "deep force'' he calls by the triple name of Spontaneity, Instinct, and Intuition. "Gladly I would solve if I could this problem of a Vocabulary,’’ Emerson groaned after the Divinity School Address; he knew very well that his effort to topple "the idolatry of nouns & verbs'' in which the Deity had been so long addressed would not be easy. It is easy to object to the terms Emerson chooses, particularly easy for those readers to whom the instinctual suggests something bestial, the spontaneous something irresponsible, and the intuitive something irrational. But the risk of being misunderstood is one Emerson will have to run (anyway, "to be great is to be misunderstood'') if he expects to find words in any vocabulary that will suggest a force felt by the individual as proceeding from within, yet somehow connected to the larger forces of nature, forces that are prior to reflection, self-consciousness, and the sallies of the will, prior even to that primary fall into division that created him as a separate being. "For the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed.’’ To explain what he means by this Emerson offers this quiet prose summary of the Orphic chants of Nature: "We first share the life by which things exist, and afterwards see them as appearances in nature, and forget that we have shared their cause.’’ What defines us as individuals is that act of forgetting; hence the paradox that intuition is a better pipeline to truth than conscious reflection. ‘‘When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or absence is all we can affirm.’’

But here, at the heart of the essay, the reader is likely to be troubled by a contradiction. Emerson began by urging us to insist on ourselves, to express what is absolutely peculiar to us as individuals; he now makes it a defining characteristic of the state of true vision that in it "we do nothing of ourselves'' but merely ‘‘allow a passage to its beams.’’ This is evidently a paradox; it is one that is as central to Emerson's faith as the Incarnation was to traditional Christianity. Indeed, it is a resemblance Emerson acknowledges later on in the essay with his unobtrusive little epigram: "a man is the word made flesh.'' Any man is the word made flesh, the incarnation of the universal in the particular. "It seems to be true,'' Emerson had written in that early journal passage concerning self-trust, ‘‘that the more exclusively idiosyncratic a man is, the more general & infinite he is, which though it may not be a very intelligible expression means I hope something intelligible. In listening more intently to our own reason, we are not becoming in the ordinary sense more selfish, but are departing more from what is small, & falling back on truth itself & God.’’

Here Quentin Anderson (with whom, for once, I find myself in complete agreement) makes an important distinction. It is true that Emerson believes in the existence of a realm of spiritual laws that serves as a base for independent moral vision. ‘‘But what the early radical Emerson was excited about was not the existence of the base, but the discovery of the primacy of the individual, who can alone realize the claims of spirit.’’ And he concludes: ‘‘There is something inclusive that justifies his activity—this is a statement which quickly leads us away from Emerson: only the activity uniquely mine can manifest the inclusive—this is a statement which leads us toward an understanding of him.''

Emerson, in other words, is less interested in inquiring into the nature of that Aboriginal Self on whom we can rely than in the nature of the procedures the individual must follow in order to open himself, if only momentarily, to that power he regarded as the essence of divinity. When he was only nineteen he wrote in his journal that ‘‘the idea of power seems to have been every where at the bottom of theology''; in another place he noted that power enters ‘‘somewhat more intimately into our idea of God than any other attribute.’’ Power is ‘‘a great flood which encircles the universe and is poured out in unnumbered channels to feed the fountains of life and the wants of Creation, but everywhere runs back again and is swallowed up in its eternal source. That Source is God.’’

In the highest moments, when we are for a moment the channel through which absolute power is flowing, the petty dialectic of self and society, self and past acts of the self, fades away into insignificance; until Emerson can turn on his own vocabulary with withering contempt. ‘‘Why then do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking.'' The term "self-reliance" implies dualism, disunion, a poor frightened individual attempting to rely on that Aboriginal Self presumed to be within. If this were really the new religion Emerson had come to preach, it would be no better than the one it replaced. In fact, it would remind us of nothing so much as the ruinous narcissism of Blake's Albion, who loses the Divine Vision when he turns his eyes toward his "Self" or Shadow and makes that his God:

Then Man ascended mourning into the splendors of his palace
Above him rose a Shadow from his wearied intellect
Of living gold, pure, perfect, holy: in white linen pure he hover'd
A sweet entrancing self delusion ...

When the soul is really present, Emerson insists, all sense of dualism ceases; one does not feel like a little self worshipping or trusting or relying on a bigger Self, but like a power open to that "great flood which encircles the universe.’’ Self-reliance is not an attitude or a virtue; it is a way of acting, and can only be manifested through action. ‘‘Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is.'' The distinction is made clearer in the section of the essay concerning the application of self-reliance to prayer: Emerson commends ‘‘the prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar,’’ but lashes out at the kind of prayer that "looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue'' not only because such prayer for a private end seems to him ‘‘meanness and theft’’ but because it ‘‘supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness.’’ True prayer knows no such dualism, even in its contemplative phase. Then it is merely "the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good.’’

In a pair of terse epigrams Emerson condenses the wisdom he has acquired in the turbulent years just passed. ‘‘Life only avails, not the having lived,’’ is one; it is an admonition not to look for power in the sepulchers of past literature or past religion or past forms of social organization. "Power ceases in the instant of repose'' is the second; it warns us that the divinity within us can only be manifested during those brief moments in which the soul, overcoming the deadliness of the past (including its own past), manages to shoot the gulf, dart to a new aim—manages to do this despite its knowledge that the new aim will someday be as deadly as the old. ‘‘This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for, that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside.’’

The really formidable difficulty of this enterprise suggests why Emerson felt it necessary to invoke Instinct and Intuition as the only forces that can still put us in contact with our own divinity. The conscious intellect, the intellect alone, could draw only one lesson from Emerson's myth of ossification: that all action is the vanity of vanities. Successful creation is a momentary circumventing of that conscious intellect, which will reassert itself soon enough; the real danger for Americans was not that a surrender to Instinct would plunge them into a maelstrom of uncontrollable passions but that even the wildest impulses can scarcely overcome for a moment the national tendencies to caution, imitativeness, and dissimulation. Hence Emerson's insistence upon the necessity of "surprise," as in the closing paragraph of "Circles"—‘‘The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire, is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle''—or in the poem "Merlin'':

‘‘Pass in, pass in,’’ the angels say
‘‘In to the upper doors,
Nor count compartments of the floors,
But mount to paradise
By the stairway of surprise.’’

The man who has perfected the art of abandonment has acquired the only kind of affluence that Fate cannot menace. He has acquired "living property, which does not wait the beck of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes.’’

Source: B. L. Packer, ‘‘Portable Property,’’ in Emerson's Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1982, pp. 137-47.

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Critical Overview