Thursday, April 01, 2010

A potential A paper

My tutor said this is a graduate paper supposed to be. Barry likes this paper too. So, I definitely expect an A on this paper.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Promise and Perils of Individualism

From the 1830s through the1850s in America, particularly in the Northeast and Middle West, there was a lyceum movement of scholars lecturing in public institutions on a wide range of secular topics such as philosophy, literature, and thoughts about society. The audiences, including college students, clergymen, and other educated classes, who exclusively studied the knowledge of European philosophy, were now inspired by the originally intellectual thought of American lectures. Among those lecturers, Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most important philosophers and writers in American history. Although each of Emerson’s essays has its own emphasis, they all stick to the central idea that every human being should develop his or her own understanding of the universal reality through independent study, experience, and thinking. While Emerson extremely emphasizes individualism, he examines both promising and perilous perspectives of it. On the one hand, individualism offers promise because its emphasis on creativity and action are essential to improve society and human development. On the other hand, individualism is perilous because being an individualist means being different from other people and the conventions of society. Individual thinking and action are full of danger and challenge and require much courage. In his most influential essay, “Nature,” Emerson criticizes the conventional wisdom that people should gain their knowledge by learning from the past and other people. In contrast, he asserts that human beings can realize the ultimate reality of the universe by studying nature in an individual way. In the essay, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson promotes the important components of individualism, such as self-trust, truth, and non-conformity, and also stresses the great perils of individualism.
In “Nature,” Emerson examines the relationship between human beings and nature and asserts that an individual should depend on his or her own instincts to understand the world. In the first sentence of the essay, Emerson explicitly points out the defect of the intellectual circumstance of his generation. “Our age is retrospective” (35). Basically, he says that people’s way of thinking is rooted in reminiscences of the past; nothing is related to the present, fresh or original. Emerson claims that “[i]t builds the sepulchers of the fathers” (35). Retrospect and reminiscence are a kind of emotion relevant to dead fathers’ tombs, but sadly, they become the primary thinking of the all living generations. Emerson goes on, “it writes biographies, histories, and criticism” (35). This statement reveals a distressing truth that people now take second-hand knowledge as their source to explore the universe and the human society. Emerson poignantly condemns this fact. “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes” (35). Former philosophers analyzed the universe through their direct contact with the universe and analyzed human beings and society through their direct contact with human beings and society. In contrast, people now depend on the previous knowledge in books to form all their understanding of the real world.
Emerson forcefully argues that individuals are supposed to learn from direct contact with nature. He asks, “[w]hy should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” (35) If people in the past could develop their original philosophy, religion, poetry, why shouldn’t we? Every human being is a manifestation of the universe, and everyone could reflect the ultimate reality of the universe. The key point is to sweep away the dust of society and history and then one could return to the beginning stage of oneself. Likewise, in the “Beauty” section of “Nature”, Emerson writes, “[e]very natural action is graceful” (45). “A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace” (47). In other words, a natural action and phenomenon is an equivalent of a universal action and phenomenon. When one gets closer to nature, he or she gets closer to a universal condition. When a thing or a life reaches the pure stage of nature, it achieves a perfect condition. The phrase “I am nothing; I see all” in “Nature” additionally confirms this idea (39). “Nothing” here means removing all man-made impression, emotion, thoughts, and leaving oneself with one’s innate existence beyond any social or human impact. In this way, a person could again be a part of nature. Despite the tininess of a human being compared to the world, one’s essence and nature would be united. For this reason, “I” represents all and “I see all.”
In the end of the first paragraph of “Nature”, Emerson encourages the audience to create a completely new intellectual world. He firmly rejects the fact that people take the knowledge from previous philosophers and writers without their own examination. Ancient knowledge is referred as “the dry bones of the past” by Emerson (35). In the essay “The American Scholar,” Emerson expresses similar ideas toward books as well. “[Books] are for nothing but to inspire” (88). “When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings” (89). Everybody has the capacity to gain full knowledge of the universe from his or her instinct and nature; books can be supplemental materials, but it would be harmful if people were to completely depend on them.
In this passage, Emerson demonstrates his intention to change the audience’s fundamental thoughts about the universe, nature, history and society and provides the idea that individualism offers lofty promise to the new nation of the U.S. He urges independent and original thinking and action, and considers them as the sole way to achieve true intellectual independence for the people and society of America. He passionately proclaims “the sun shines to-day also. […] There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship” (35). Although the U.S. had existed only for a few decades, Emerson saw unlimited potential in this promising land. Nevertheless, because of the strong tendency that people usually have to follow traditions, the ideological change that Emerson suggested would not be sudden or dramatic, but slow, invisible, and at a steady pace.
In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson additionally confirms the idea of thinking and action based on one’s own natural instincts. It is perhaps radical that Emerson claims that “[n]o law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. […]. The only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it” (179). In comparison with quiet and solitary reading, one can easily image how powerful the scene is that the audiences crowded around Emerson and listen to his eloquent speech in person. In such a circumstance, the impact of the unusual declaration could be profound to awaken the audience’s self-consciousness of individualism. In truth, the message Emerson intends to deliver here is that individuals should really trust their own instincts. He urges the audience to be themselves and not to imitate anybody else, regardless how great a person seems or how great an idea appears. Every individual is valuable in a unique way. Individuals should try their best to achieve the best understanding of the ultimate reality, and they also should trust their own endeavor and their intellectual achievement. The confidence in one’s instincts and conviction is the fundamental basis for everybody to perform anything else in the world. It is also one of the most important ideas that Emerson wants to provide to his audience.
In comparison with “Nature,” which offers the promising perspective of individualism, in the essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson explains how society contradicts self-reliance and individualism. Emerson writes that “[t]hese are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world” (178). Living in a society, individuals have to interact with numerous things and circumstances that are not only trivial but dangerous for one’s spiritual improvement. While individuals get more involved in society, they have fewer chances to listen to their inner voice, and they are walking opposite destination from their natural instinct. Emerson believes that “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” (178). In other words, the fundamental principle of society is against the instinct of individuals. The reason is that “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” (178). Society is a man-made phenomenon for human survival as well as to achieve a better living. However, beyond this practical purpose, Emerson realizes that individuals are forced to lose their spiritual independence and freedom in order to maintain a society. Emerson unfolds the deep implication of society that “[t]he virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs” (178).
Since society and individualism are two contradictory concepts, it is understandable that there are great perils for individualists to live in a society, and consequently, courage becomes one of the most outstanding attributes that individualists are supposed to possess. Society demands individuals to forget themselves but submissively follow social conventions and customs. In contrast, individualism insists individuals who think and act independently, relying on their own natural instinct. Society constantly advocates conformity but individualism absolutely rejects this notion. For instance, Emerson cries, “imitation is suicide” (176). Nevertheless, Emerson is profoundly aware of the dangers of nonconformity in a society. “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure” (182). Self-trust means distrusting all conventional phenomena, challenging the majority of people and tradition, and losing the support of society, family, and church. It is a great challenge that demands great courage to fulfill. Emerson illustrates many aspects of the peril; for example, “[t]he other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loth to disappoint them” (182). It is common that people do many things without true reasons but merely for following “our past acts” or other people. From the point of view of individualism, such actions are completely irrational because they violate the principle that one does everything based on his or her true understanding of the world. However, it demands great courage, for an individual stops performing those actions because of the imaginable difficulties such as misunderstanding, condemnation, and hostility. Without courage, an individualist would inevitably fall into the condition of conformity.
Besides courage, action is crucial for individualism as well. It is not easy that individuals keep independent thinking; however, it is even harder for people to have action based on their own thought but disregard social conventions. Emerson claims that “no man can come near me but through my act” (192). “Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing” (184). Only through performing true individual actions can one really be creative and contribute to other people and human evolution. Not only in “Self-Reliance” but also in the essay “The American Scholar,” Emerson stresses the necessity of action. “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet man. Without it thought can never ripen into truth” (91). Everybody knows the fact that scholars mainly focus on thought. However, as a mental action, thought must be related to real action in order to become productive.
In addition, somebody may question individualism by asking if people no longer follow a universal morality, but all act according to their own moral consideration, how social would avoid falling into anarchy. In fact, Emerson’s writing proves false this assumed peril of individualism. Individualism does not suggest that everybody possess absolute freedom; in contrast, it means everybody should put much effort to achieve the stage of self-realization and self-conduct. Founding the true nature is important for everybody. As long as it is one’s true nature, it must be universally suitable for everybody. Thus, Emerson explicitly claims that “[t]o believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all man ---that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense” (175). Individualism could never cause anarchy, but can only produce harmony.
In Emerson’s essays, individualism is the most prominent feature he wants to provide to the audience. Individualism refers the idea that individuals should learn the ultimate reality of the universe from their own contact with nature. Reading books is not recommended if one solely depends on books to gain his or her knowledge. While Emerson asserts the fact that individualism is promising, he does not overlook the great perils of individualism. Being different from social conventions and traditions is indeed perilous; thus, Emerson promotes courage and action as the most important values of individualism. In the 1830s and 1840s, Emerson’s lectures were extremely appealing to the audience because of the significant implications of individualism, including originality, creativity, and activity. On this ideological basis, contemporary Americans could abandon European heritage and start to forge a true American intellectual independence.

Work Cited
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Selected Essays. New York: Penguin Group, 2003.


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