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ANALYSIS OF SELF-RELIANCE.
The theme here is directly named, and distinctly spoken too many times, self-reliance. This fact raises the question whether this is purely a literary production, or whether it has didactic or oratorical character. Discourses are not made to be classified; and it should give one no serious concern should he not be able to draw the line sharply on every selection he chances to deal with. A selection may in fact belong between the classes made on any basis of division. The same living object is studied both in the class of botany and in that of zoology. A man belongs precisely neither to this party nor to that ; and without reproach, it may be. Both Emerson's and Carlyle’s writings are unique in character, a kind of prose, poetry, and oratory all in one; a sort of universal discourse in which all aims and methods are interfused.
Emerson always champions the worth and self-activity of the individual. He believes in the divine right of kings, and further holds that every one is a king. He appeals to the truly heroic in character, as does Carlyle, whose “ He
” is a fitting collateral study with “Self-Reliance.” Emerson gives new emphasis to the categorical imperative of Kant, and with Fichte makes prominent the autonomy of the spirit. He stands for self-activity against passivity. He is at the extreme point from that other doctrine which puts man at the mercy of heredity and environment. No doubt it takes both theories to make the whole truth. Man determines and is determined. But he needs no encouragement on the one side, as he does on the other. He is only too prone to yield to external forces; to take his ease when high action is required. He finds ready excuse for his misconduct by admitting the supremacy of external forces. Man is man, a person and not a thing, just to the extent to which he asserts himself, makes his own thought and deed prevail in the world.
This selection arouses in one manly independence and pride of worth. While other selections of literature usually present an idealized victory in some conflict, as in the preceding selection, this production nerves the spirit for whatever conflict may arise. And this is generally true of Emerson's writings. It is notably so in “Compensation," which should be studied in connection with “ Self-Reliance.” Emerson strikes directly at the centre of life, and reaches the source of all its issues. He goes directly to the nature of the soul, as the source of the facts of life. He deals with the most serious and fundamental concerns of life. He is a spiritual tonic to the slow and impoverished blood, and heightens to an ideal degree pride in spiritual worth. No writer treats life in a more fundamental and universal way. The present theme is the soul itself. “ To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies because it works and is.” His plea is for more soul, more virtue. His meaning is that the soul is the centre of things. In this he is both idealist and transcendentalist. His proposition is that a universal reliance should be grounded in the soul, rather than in external circumstances. “ It is only as a man puts off all foreign support and stands alone that I see him to be strong and to prevail.”. There must be no reliance on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.” This strikes at a prevailing sentiment with which we are all familiar. Popularly men are estimated by what they have and not by what they are. Emerson would not even wish to know what virtues a man has. " There is the man and his virtues.
I ask primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from
the man to his actions.” Even prayer must not look for some foreign addition. “It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul."
The soul, in which all reliance must be placed, is life and action. It exists only in action and as action. And it must act according to its own nature and constitution. The soul is power in action. “ Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent.” The more soul the more power.
66 Who has more obedience than I masters me, though he should not raise his finger. Round him I must revolve by the gravitation of spirits.” Hence,“ Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Should he conform to the opinions of others, he does not respect his own self-activity, and violates his own essential nature. Mere conformity is lack of self-respect. Man cannot maintain true self-respect and “capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” One's selfactive power is checked by striving to be consistent with the past self. “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” It is the present self which acts, and it should act freely, — according to its present resources. Consistency with past actions and utterances necessarily leads to inconsistency with the true self. At each moment the soul is a new power, has a new capacity for action ; and it must, to be true to itself, act up to its present capacity. Conformity and consistency are marks of a weak and cringing soul.
And thus with all the items enumerated in the selection; each illustrates that the soul to be true to itself must rely on itself, must account to itself for all that it does, or rather it is all that it does. It is really a plea for intensity and quantity of life. 6. The man must be so much that he must make all circumstances indifferent.” He must so respect his worth that he will not violate his own constitution, which ordains that he shall act fully and freely. “ The only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.” He must account to himself
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66 Let a man,
for everything, must absolve himself to himself. The
Put in another way, as Emerson frequently suggests, reliance on the true self is reliance on the divinity. His plea really is for “the deity to come out of hiding in every person and at every point.” He speaks of a greater selfreliance as a new respect for the divinity in man.”
He speaks of living in self-reliance as living with God. “When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn.” With Emerson, to rely on one's own nature and constitution is to rely on God. “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.” With these suggestions the student should follow the essay in detail, from the beginning to the close, and state the one proposition to which they all point.
More and more it appears that Emerson is dealing with universal and fundamental experience in life, and that thus far he fills the requirement of literature, and of the highest grade of literature. There can be no question also but that the theme is entertained by the reader in a highly idealized form, and that the response is made in the form of feeling rather than simply by cognition. But each one must test this for himself. After reading the selection, I think each one will admit that it is not so much that he has gained any definite truth as that a new spirit of life has taken possession of him. The close form of logical truth Emerson cares little about. He submits truth immediately to the intuitions. This is the highest court of appeal. All questions are settled by the intuitive feelings. He does
not expound propositions in the ordinary way, as in didactic discourse, but states truth absolutely, and without proof. His writings are said to lack unity; that one may as well read backwards as forwards. Let this be true, and it proves nothing so far as unity is concerned; or, if anything, that there is the highest kind of unity. In speaking of a true character, Emerson says : “ Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza, — read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing.” So with a true work of art; begin where you will, it still spells the same thing. The test of unity is easy. In reading “Self-Reliance feels that he is wandering from the subject. He hits it at every stroke. Propositions are not logically chained together, as in the ordinary expository processes, but each proposition states the truth anew and at the centre. There is no mistaking its unity, unless one be bent on finding a certain kind of unity or nothing. Besides, it must be remembered that emotional unity does not require logical unity. A poem is not a logical whole, but an emotional whole. The appeal is here constantly made to the soul's intuition of itself. From this there is no variation. What more can be asked on the score of unity ?
This selection is like “ The Two Voices,” in that it engages philosophical thinking; and like it also, in that the head does not rob the heart of its blood. The feeling in both cases is farthest removed from sensuous literature. The feeling aroused is of the most rational; so much so that it does not appeal to the popular mind. The culture which appreciates the joy of self-reliance is far removed from that which appreciates bright colors or sweet sounds.
II. The selection is peculiar, in that there is no embodiment in which the ideal is realized. It has not the double character found in the other selections analyzed, and as required