Emerson: On Living Here and Now

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the leading thinker and writer of the New England Transcendentalists. New England Transcendentalism was a literary and philosophical movement that flourished primarily in Concord, Massachusetts and the surrounding region during the decades before the Civil War. Its basic philosophical conviction—inspired in part by Kant's Transcendental Idealism--was that genuine human knowledge does not come from passively receiving sense impressions and social indoctrination from outside, but originates with the creative intuitions of thinking and acting individuals.

Emerson was born in Boston, where his father was a Unitarian minister. From 1817-1821 he attended Harvard College, after which he taught at a school for a few years. He enrolled at Harvard Divinity School and in 1829 was appointed Pastor of the Second Church of Boston. In 1835, after a trip to Europe, he moved to Concord, where (apart from two further trips to Europe) he spent the rest of his long life. In Concord Henry David Thoreau became a close friend.

In 1838 Emerson delivered a famous and controversial address at Harvard Divinity School, which was too unorthodox for the majority of his listeners, and which was attacked at the time as "the latest form of infidelity." He was not invited back to Harvard for almost thirty years. Finding the pulpit too much of a constraint, he had already resigned all church-related positions, and embarked on a career as free-lance writer and lecturer. Like most New England Transcendentalists, he favored and worked for progressive political causes: He supported the Abolitionists, protested against the eviction of the Cherokee Indians from their ancestral homeland, collaborated with Margaret Fuller, an early feminist journalist, and strongly sympathized with a number of social and educational reform movements. As a writer Emerson was highly successful--not only in the United States, but also in Europe. (Nietzsche, e.g., was one of his early admirers.) Toward the end of his life, Emerson was acknowledged to be America's leading man of letters; the radicalism of his thought was no longer held against a man who had come to represent a major philosophical vision of America.

"Self-Reliance,” published in 1841, may be Emerson's most important and best known essay. Its central theme is an uncompromising concept of personal autonomy and integrity, a concept that fully justifies the description of Emerson as the foremost philosopher of American individualism. The essay's important sub-text is the concept of living in the present, or timelessness—a significant part, as will be seen, of the idea of radical self-reliance.

An important sign of a person’s integrity, according to “Self-Reliance,” is that person’s courage to trust his or her own insights and intuitions, rather than those of established authors and acknowledged authorities:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,--that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought... Trust thyself!--every heart vibrates to that iron string.

In passage after passage Emerson excoriates the widespread timidity that makes people anxiously look out for what others may think, and for the canonized opinions of the past that may condemn one’s own thoughts as offenses or deviations. Basically the self-reliant individual has to stand up against two forces that tend to diminish its full development and strength: society and tradition. With respect to society Emerson writes: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. … The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs... Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”

At times Emerson’s aversion to society, and his insistence that all social relations be strictly personal, goes so far as to result in a libertarian rejection of all social solidarity, and of economic charity in particular: “Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee thou foolish philanthropist that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.”

With respect to tradition Emerson submits:

Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,--means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour. All things are made sacred by relation to it--one as much as another. If therefore a man claims to know and speak of God and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fullness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripening being? Whence then this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul … and history is an impertinence and an injury if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming. … But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he, too, lives with nature in the present, above time.

To live in the present, in other words, is as much part of being one’s self as resisting the encroachments of society. To be here and now in the fullest sense is what gives intensity and creative power to the individual self, and giving one’s self over without reservation to the flow of time and the changes it will bring is the unencumbered timelessness that a healthy existence embodies:

Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside.

Since Emerson considered himself a Kantian of sorts, it is important to take note of an important difference that distinguishes him from his German predecessor. The difference lies in the two philosophers’ respective definition of the self. For Kant the true and innermost self is pure reason—reason cleansed of all emotional, instinctual, and physical elements. Kant, in this respect, stood squarely in the tradition of Plato, Descartes, and other clear-cut idealists. Emerson, as a typical Romantic, does not see reason at the center of the self, but rather “spontaneity,” “intuition,” or “instinct.” Emerson trusts the non-rational faculties of human beings much more than any form of detached analysis or ratiocination:

What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, while all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.

It is evident that Emerson's idea of self-reliance is a perfect example of what de Tocqueville called "the philosophical method of the Americans." What the French historian described as a pattern of observed social behavior, Emerson formulated as an explicit philosophical doctrine. Both writers mapped out an ideal according to which an individual achieves self-realization when he or she is entirely unencumbered by either social conventions or the dead weights of the past.

That this radical individualism is the culmination of a historical process, de Tocqueville already mentioned when he drew a line from Luther and Descartes to the Enlightenment and from there to the culture of the United States. In the case of Emerson this line of development can be shown to be even more closely related to the specific evolution of the Reformation--to what one might call the inner logic of Protestantism.

The single most important difference between Protestantism and Catholicism is the Protestant insistence on every individual's immediate relation to God, a relation which has no need of a mediator in the form of a priest, a church hierarchy, or a dogmatic interpretation of scriptures. This is why Luther translated the Bible into his native tongue, and why Protestants everywhere encouraged ordinary people to read the Bible for themselves. (At the time the Catholic Church felt so threatened by this form of individualistic self-reliance that Tyndal, the first translator of the New Testament into English, was garroted and burned at the stake when he was captured by the Spaniards and handed over to the Holy Inquisition.)

It did not take long, however, for Protestantism to develop its own orthodoxy and authoritarian church structure. Many Protestants felt, therefore, that they had to break away from an establishment once more, and in the process they radicalized their individualism with regard to spiritual matters. Many of the newer Protestant sects taught, for example, that God's message was not necessarily tied to the letter of the Bible, but rather to its spirit--to what an inspired individual experiences while reading scriptures. Others departed from adhering to the letter to emphasizing what the letter might mean to an individual. Inspiration or intuition became more important than the externality of any text; truth increasingly ceased to be something objective, and became something intensely personal instead.

The spirit’s independence from the letter of any scriptures became the precedent on which Emerson based the main point of his controversial “Divinity School Address”: “[Truth] cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What [another] announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.”

Such sentiments were, of course, too radical for more conservative Protestants, and Emerson's fall from Harvard's grace testifies to the degree to which radical individualism was then experienced as a threat even among many Protestants. Nevertheless, Protestantism continued to split into ever smaller sects, because too many Protestants insisted on their own understanding of scriptures and idea of congregation, instead of bowing to any tradition or theological authority. Emerson was a member of the Unitarian church, one of the least dogmatic congregations in the history of Protestantism. Even this liberal congregation, however, became too stifling in the end, and eventually caused Emerson to sever all ties to organized religion. Again, the principle involved is expressed in the “Divinity School Address”: "That is always best which gives me to myself. The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, Obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen."

The underlying principle or inner logic of the Protestant revolution is an ever more radicalized relation between the inner and the outer. At the time of the Reformation it was the Bible as God's original word which was the inner as opposed to the externality of church, dogma, and ritual. Later the inspired interpretation of the Bible was the inner as opposed to the external text of the book. Finally it was the individual’s intuition as such--independent of any external condition--which became the revelation of truth. And with this final step the logical development of Protestantism had found its ultimate consummation.

The Protestant emphasis on the inner as opposed to the outer finds expression in Emerson's deep passion to always live life from the inside out, and to avoid any tendency that seeks inspiration and guidelines in external authorities and models. His remarks in "Self-Reliance" on the aesthetic culture of his day are instructive:

Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and the Distant. The soul created the arts wherever they have flourished. It was in his own mind that the artist sought his model. It was an application of his own thought to the thing to be done and the conditions to be observed. And why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model? Beauty, convenience, grandeur of thought and quaint expression are as near to us as to any, and if the American artist will study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of the government, he will create a house in which all these will find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also.


Churches that copy the external forms of medieval Gothic cathedrals, in other words, or banks that imitate the facades of Greek temples, are not the sort of thing that genuine and self-confident Americans would build in an age of railroad expansion and the unfolding industrial revolution. Authentic are only those styles that come from one's self and one's own actual life and situation. Copying forms or expressions which others have created under different conditions signals a loss of self-reliance, or a lack of recognition as to who one actually is. Copying forms represents the debilitating attempt to live from the outside in.

While Emerson's mistrust of external authorities and social pressures is connected to his Protestant heritage, his rejection of too close an observance of traditions ties in with a philosophy of time which in Western philosophy began with the thought of Heraclitus.



Heraclitus lived during the 6th century BCE. in the Greek city of Ephesus, located on the coast of Asia Minor. He is counted among the more important of the pre-Socratic philosophers, although rather little of his writing has survived. What has survived has come down to us in the form of quotations by later Greek philosophers, and these quotations have often been altered and embellished by the writers who quoted them. Among the few quotations which are considered genuine by today's scholars are statements like "As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them," "War is father of all and king of all," and "Corpses should be thrown out quicker than dung." Yet, in spite of the scarcity of authenticated statements, Heraclitus has had a profoundly inspiring presence in the history of Western thought. He stands for a conception of being which is mostly antithetical to mainstream thinking, but which has served as a model for a number of thinkers who themselves became highly influential, such as Hegel, Nietzsche, or Bergson.

The gist of Heraclitus' philosophy is usually cited as "Panta rei" (Greek for "everything flows") or "You cannot step into the same river twice." What these statements imply is the idea that nothing is as permanent as it appears to be, and that a wise way of living will not aim at any permanent states or possessions, but at living fully at every moment in the flow of time. Neither the past nor the future is the time of our life, only the present. "Carpe diem" (Latin for “seize the day”) has become the snappy formula of this wisdom. The underlying Heraclitean thought is that any notion of permanency is ultimately an illusion.

The principle of constant change applies to individual objects as well as to the world as a whole, and to material things as well as to states of mind. Living things, of course, are very obviously subject to change; it is part of their definition as living things that they come into being, grow and decline, and eventually end with their death. Inanimate things, by contrast, seem to last indefinitely; rocks, mountains, or stars have often served as icons of permanence or even eternity. A closer look however, will reveal that they, too, are bound to disintegrate and disappear. Realizing the universal inevitability of change and eventual demise, a person will look at life with quite different eyes than someone who believes in lasting conditions or presumed eternities.

Most people are used to think of their body as something that lasts for a lifetime. In reality, however, every cell in the body will be replaced several times before the organism finally disintegrates. The body, thus, looks like a process rather than an entity--and so will everything if looked at in the right way. Civic bureaucracies consider persons to be the same entity from birth to death; Social Security numbers or dog tags are meant to represent sameness in time. In ultimately more important respects, however, there is not much of an observable identity in a baby and an old man: change is far more prevalent in life than things that persist.

Marriage, as a legal arrangement, is expected to make a relationship between two individuals predictable by making it permanent. But changes will appear before long--and reduce the element of sameness to something tenuous or even illusory. Individuals change, and so do their actual relationships; hanging on to old patterns and expectations will soon be exposed as problematic. Social systems, such as slave economies, Feudalism, or Capitalism, can exist for hundreds of years and be perceived as "natural" and immutable. Yet, in the long run they are no more impervious to change than watermelons or teeth. The world as a whole, according to Heraclitean wisdom, is better seen as a process than as something stable—as a world of becoming, not of being, to use Plato’s terminology..

Since ultimately everything changes, it would be unwise to try to live as if anything were to last. Practical wisdom consists in adjusting to the impermanence of things, and in living flexibly and with open horizons. Hanging on to earlier phases of one's self, for example, or clinging to past periods of one's life, is an inclination that a thoughtful person will overcome by remembering that under the surface things are in flux. Thus Walt Whitman, who felt himself to be part of the movement of New England Transcendentalism, writes in his Leaves of Grass:

O living always--always dying!
O the burials of me, past and present!
O me, while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever!
O me, what I was for years, now dead. (I lament not--I am content):
O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look at where I cast them!
To pass on, (o living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind!


It is not known whether Whitman was aware of Heraclitus' recommendation that "corpses should be thrown out faster than dung," but it is clear that Whitman's poem as a whole is an enthusiastic affirmation of Heraclitean wisdom. And so is Friedrich Nietzsche's poem "Ecce Homo" (Latin for "Behold the Man"):

Yes, I know from where I come!
Insatiable like the fire
Do I glow, consume myself.
Light is everything I seize,
Ashes everything I leave:
Fire am I without fail.


The guiding metaphor of Nietzsche's poem, fire, describes a way of life which always transforms static mass into kinetic energy--accumulated possessions into vibrant experiences. Existence, for Nietzsche, is not static, but a process; a life of self-abandonment and self-overcoming is wiser in his eyes than a life of anxious self-preservation.

"This world order always was and shall be an ever-living fire" is another one of Heraclitus' fragments. For Heraclitus fire is as much a symbol of life as change as the flowing waters of a river. Fire is a particularly apt symbol for a Heraclitean life because it transforms energy that is stored in dead matter into active energy, rather than the other way around. Most people are active in order to accumulate--to find some ultimate rest and static peace. Heraclitus is the visionary of life as movement that keeps moving, as a motion that does not aim at its own termination. "The way is the goal" is a famous Zen Buddhist motto. To see the world as an unending process, and to aim at timelessness by living with full intensity in the present, is a vision that philosophers like Heraclitus and Emerson share with Zen. It is a vision that has always been an important corrective to the prevailing common sense in the East as well as in the West.

Emerson's Heraclitean emphasis on process and transformation make it clear, by the way, that his radical individualism is by no means identical with the acquisitive egotism that Libertarians and other extreme apologists of private property rights advocate. Emerson may be the foremost spokesman for American individualism, and there are in his writings noteworthy passages (such as his polemic against helping the poor) that seem to suggest that hanging on to personal wealth is something like a sacred right for him. But that would be a misunderstanding of the spirit of his reflections. Like his friend and fellow-Transcendentalist Thoreau, he perceived the pronounced attachment to property as a succumbing to a static mode of existence, and as an enslavement by external things. Thus he writes toward the end of "Self-Reliance”:

And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long that they have come to esteem the religious, learned and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is. But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature.


(From Jorn Bramann: The Educating Rita Workbook, Copyright © 2004)

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