Skip to content


Self-Reliance—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Few thinkers have been as significant in forming the American way of thought as has Emerson. Look beneath the surface of the can-do American spirit, and you’ll find a subterranean river of Emerson flowing along, carrying both commerce and social thought. For the Christian reader, a quick look at just one of Emerson’s essays, “Self-Reliance,” will provide ample evidence that this man’s influence has not been one that has taken our people in the direction of holiness. In fact, one mid-sized quotation should make the case quite convincingly.
“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. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.”
What nonsense! And it brings us to my biggest complaint against Emerson aside from his wholly secular outlook. Many critics will note and laud Emerson’s “aphoristic” style. In other words, his writing tends to sound like a collection of witty and wise sayings. Read through some of his essays and you will stumble upon various phrases that you’ve heard before. Essentially, Emerson worked in sound bites in an era long before electronic communication made sound bites important. This aphoristic style helps to explain the popularity of the writer; however, it also stands as one of his greatest weaknesses. Rather than taking statement and thoroughly working through it, exploring it, testing it, and weighing it in the balance, Emerson simple lays a claim on the table and moves on to the next, often resorting solely to his own force of personality as evidence for his assertion.
In short, Emerson quite demonstrably commits the very transgression that the secularists accuse believers of committing: believing things on faith and without any corroboration.
Why, in Emerson’s thought, is “No law sacred to me but that of my nature”? He offers no evidence, no argument. It is so, apparently, simply because he states it. It seems correct to Emerson; thus, since his inborn law is the only relevant law for him, it must be true. Such is, of course, an example of circular reasoning that would be dismissed as unrealistically contrived were we to place it in logic textbook, but for Emerson, such thinking has ensured nearly two centuries of importance.
Would Emerson then not applaud the actions of a serial killer who simple follows his own nature? If not, why? Perhaps he would argue that the serial killer is not indeed following his own nature, but if that is the case, then how can he know? How can he know that his own nature is not in some way perverted.
Later in the essay, Emerson trumpets his view of God, a pantheistic being that is in and among all. While he uses some of the terminology of orthodoxy, he changes those things meanings to make them conform to his inward-dwelling God. Let us consider his thoughts on prayer:
“Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good.”
That all sounds quite lovely, but what, precisely, does it mean? We learn as we continue the same passage.
“But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness.”
Therefore, if I pray for my children’s health, I am being mean and thieving. If I pray, as instructed by Jesus himself, for “our daily bread,” I am supposing dualism. But of course I do suppose dualism. I suppose that God is God and that man is man. These two are not the same. To suppose otherwise is would require a good bit of evidence that Emerson simply does not offer. The universe, in Emerson’s view, is a unified and interconnected thing, with the mind of God and the mind of humans linked in and among all things, simply because Emerson says so. A page or so later, he declares “men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.” Emerson’s own creed, however, he sets up as healthy and sound. Why? Again, it’s simply because he declares this to be the case.
Emerson’s writings stand as a sort of secular scripture, espousing views that Christians will find largely objectionable. His greatest strength is in the powerful voice with which he shares his ideas; his greatest weakness lies in his assumption that this powerful voice is a sufficient force to prove his positions.

Posted in American Literature, Transcendentalism.


0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

You must be logged in to post a comment.