Thursday, December 18, 2008


So I'm trying to work my way through Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, Self-Reliance. Parts of it I like, mostly because I like the power of his prose, even though a good 25% of it is obscure to me because of his writing style and the many arcane references he makes. I find I don't agree with most of what I think he is trying to say. I think his flaw is he gets a bit of an insight but then uses hyperbole to make his point, going way overboard into the absurd, to drive his particular idea home. He also contradicts himself frequently, but you are so caught up in the laybrinth of his wordiness that you can't quite put your finger on where he went wrong. Of course he is the author of the famous quote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Someone quoted that line to me recently (in last couple of years) when I was bemoaning my own lack of consistency. However, I think Emerson must have used it as a defense mechanism. He certainly didn't think he was a 'little mind.' No, he is quite convinced of his own deep wisdom. But he is also very inconsisent, so there ya go!

Here is a simple sentence that I had to read about 5 times and I'm still not sure I understand it: Life only avails, not the having lived.


What is that supposed to mean?

In context I think he is trying to say once you're dead your ideas are tired and carry no weight. That only the present, right now, as you live and breath is of importance. Now I understand he is trying to rally his reader, who supposedly is an unthinking conformist, and wants them to carpe diem, as they say. But to me it is simply ridiculous to have such contempt for past human beings who might share their wisdom with us. In fact I don't see a conflict between listening to the wisemen of the past and seizing the day. The whole thing sounds contrived just to give Emerson a platform to pontificate from.

Like the Romantics were a reaction to the Enlightment and the radical 60's were a reaction to the conservative 50's, I understand that Emerson was a reaction to the Puritans. And perhaps he was the first American to begin to express such a strong counter worldview. That might be his genius. But I don't think his insights aged all that well. So I guess I shouldn't listen to him!!!!

Alas, though, I must finish the last couple of pages of the essay. Also, I am intrigued by the essay entitled, The Over-soul. I think this explains his form of Transcendentalism which I would like to understand better. In Self-Reliance he often refers to God but his philosophy seems so relativistic, I don't know how he reconciles the two. Maybe he doesn't.

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