Discussion Topic

Emerson's exploration of spirituality and references to religion or God in "Self-Reliance."

Summary:

In "Self-Reliance," Emerson explores spirituality by emphasizing the importance of individual intuition and inner guidance as sources of divine insight. He references God as an inner force within each person, advocating for self-trust and personal responsibility in spiritual matters, rather than adherence to external religious doctrines.

Expert Answers

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

How does Emerson discuss spirituality in Self-Reliance?

As with everything else, Emerson consigns spiritual matters to the heart of the individual rather than solely to organized religion or any church. Emerson believes that just because something has been taught for a long time and accepted by a large number of people, that does not make it beyond criticism or subject to re-interpretation.

The counter-argument to Emerson's nonconformist approach is that one's own interpretation might come from the devil rather than God. Emerson famously counters this idea:

I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me 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." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.

Emerson is not saying there is no good or evil, nor is he arguing that truth does not exist. However, he is arguing against the idea that any new idea or interpretation is inherently satanic, which was a common way of getting nonconformists to silence themselves. Emerson is saying if a doctrine seems wrong upon reflection, such questioning should not be seen as evil.

Emerson also believes that spirituality is a constantly evolving matter. He believes humanity's understanding of the divine is not a fixed thing; it expands as one grows and reflects. He considers clinging to tradition and old modes of thinking to be blind worship of the past, not faithfulness to God.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Does Emerson reference religion or God in "Self-Reliance"?

All of the references to organized religion in Emerson's classic essay "Self-Reliance" are negative, since the philosopher rejects any constraints that would hamper the non-conformity that he regards as the essence of self-reliance. Instead, he embraces the Socratic teaching that the voice of god dwells within each individual. As he himself expresses the individual's relationship with God, "The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure, that it is profane to interpose and seek help."

If one regards religion as a refuge and bulwark against human vulnerabilty and suffering, however, Emerson is having none of it. In his belief that "Power is the essential measure of right," it's easy to see the philosopher's great appeal for Friedrich Nietzsche, who was also fascinated with power and who famously proclaimed the death of God. Likewise, in Emerson's oft-expressed disdain for human weakness, he seems to signal a solidarity with a strain of Calvinism that was becoming increasingly influential in shaping American values.

To grasp Emerson's attitude toward religion, one might better hark back to the gods of the ancient world, of the Greek and Roman classics, or of the Norse sagas, as he does in one illuminating passage.

If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and faith, let us at least resist our temptations; let us enter into the state of war, and wake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy, in our Saxon breasts.

In such statements, one can more easily understand the skepticism of Melville and Hawthorne toward the tenets of Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement. The belief in listening to "the voice of God that dwells within" can account for the conscience of Socrates, but it may explain the behavior of Captain Ahab.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Does Emerson reference religion or God in "Self-Reliance"?

In Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance," I am uncertain if you are referring to organized religion or a belief in God.

Emerson mentions God in this outstanding essay. Emerson's mantra in this piece is "Trust thyself." He stresses the importance of moving forward with a genuine belief in what one is able to accomplish in this world. Emerson presents the belief that we are individually and distinctively made by the hand of God, with God's purpose inherent in our beings. Emerson believes that when we honor our purpose, we honor God.

Emerson advises the reader that in being different, the world will punish you; conformity makes other people comfortable.

He insists that we do not remain consistent because the world expects it. If one changes his mind, he should not worry what others will say. Speak this new truth without apology.

Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther...To be great is to be misunderstood.

Emerson speaks directly of God, and the soul and spirit of man. He states that there is no one needed between God and his connection with men because the "relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure..."

Nothing and no one else is necessary with God; he seems to defy organized religion to pursue a pure and natural connection between man and God, without religious "labels" or doctrines.

....no intermediaries—priest, doctrine, church, scripture, etc.—are needed or helpful.

Emerson contends that the connection between God and man is not based on things of the past. "Old things pass away," he states, as well as those who educate us, religious buildings, and even miracles of the past.

...teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour....All things are dissolved to their centre by their cause, and, in the universal miracle, petty and particular miracles disappear...

Emerson purports that those who have a true and pure connection with God will see this. Beware of those who might mislead. Emerson declares that the small beginnings of the past are unimportant when compared to the achievements by forward movement over time.

If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to...some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness and completion?

Emerson's perception of God and the soul are based on the here and now, and what is to come. Believers must move with one's eye on the final prize, not looking backward. His closing statement to this section of the essay is that the soul must look to God today, avoiding elements of what is in the past.

...the soul is light; where it is, is day; where it was, is night

(Emerson began his career with organized religion; tragedy made him doubt his faith. American transcendentalism, which he "helped fashion," stood against, among other things, materialism and institutionalized religion, but not loss of faith in God.)

[He believed in] the idea that truth resides throughout creation and is grasped intuitively...

It would appear that though he did not support organized religion, he did believe man was tied to God through the elements of creation.

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
Last Updated on