Emersonian Individualism Emerson’s “transcendentalism” is essentially a romantic individualism, a philosophy of life for a new people who had overthrown their colonial governors and set about conquering a new continent by their own lights. Though Emerson is not a technical philosopher, the tendency of his thought is toward idealist metaphysics in which soul and intuition, or inspiration, are central. The new American experiment needed every idea within its reach. Taking a practical and democratic, yet poetic interest in all of nature and in individuals of every walk of life, Emerson stresses the potential for genius and creativity in all people. It is a source of creative insight within which Emerson identifies as divine. His praise for Plato can easily be found in his work.
He says that “Mind is the only reality of which men and all other natures are better or worse reflectors.” For Emerson, “intuition” is a poetic faculty of seeing things creatively. Nothing is possible within our distinctively human world without such creative insight and interpretation. Therefore, Emerson calls for us to always be prepared to listen to this voice within instead of conforming to societal pressures. The theme of Self-Reliance is an elaboration of this idealist theme — we are to follow our own lights. The Over-soul, “the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest.” It is both “the act of seeing and the thing seen,” and it creates our world in depth by means of our insight and interpretations.
Emerson’s great emphasis upon nonconformity and integrity shows that this Over-soul creates a world through individuals rather than through the commerce of groups. “Where we find beauty in a flower or a forest or a poem, meaning and direction, or deep understanding, the voice of “this deity” is speaking through us and creating the world around us by such means. This deity does not speak to groups but, in radical protestant style, to each person alone to the degree he or she attends to the message.” The value Emerson attributes to the messages depends upon the Over-soul being “self-sufficing and perfect in every hour.” In spite of his individualism, Emerson’s thought is similar to the romantic nationalism of 19th century Europe, but where this nationalism focused upon collective entities such as a people, their language and culture, or their state, Emerson’s focus is upon the individual. In Self-Reliance he says, “it is easy, in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Where romantic nationalism stresses the development of an authentic national culture free from foreign influences and takes a collective perspective more or less for granted, Emerson applies a similar approach to each individual. He complains that all men hear the inner voice in solitude but that they lose themselves when they enter into the world of men.
“Society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Emerson feels man must work on his own and be diligent and truthful in that work to produce a better society. Man must be willing to take risks instead of conforming to the rules of society in order to prosper. Man should control society instead of allowing society to control him. The two major barriers to self-reliance are conformity and relying on the past. The Trustee is man, himself, when he trusts his own intuition. This modifies the egotism of self-reliance because it makes it common to all men and it creates the view that self-reliance is not based on intellect but on common sense.
Self-reliance allows one to progress in any situation. It implies that there would be no king or higher government; all would be equal. Self-reliance does not allow men to claim that they know God and use archaic terminology because in this way men revert to the past for authority. Emerson feels man should realize that his life is built on fate and chance and he has no power to control the outcome. Society wants to impose government, rules, and law on its people so they can be puppet-like. Emerson proposes that men live based on their own individual instincts thereby creating their own internal law. Emerson believes that men fail to prosper because they allow society to think for them.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblins of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” Emerson believes in living in the present and not in the past. Society is likened to a “joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread..to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” This is his explanation of how people are seduced into ignoring their own insights and convictions, their own “culture,” in order to better profit by their intercourse with society. Emerson warns of the seductions of society and supplies a moral counter-weight: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” It is better to make your own mistakes and suffer from them than to make the mistakes dictated by another and surrender oneself to dissolution in outside forces. Creative interpretation is not to be discouraged, and each person’s genius should be developed as far as possible. This is the central meaning of American liberalism, and the critique of mere conformity is an important part of this. Yet an empirical and scientific emphasis is needed to counter balance the stress upon creativity.
For while facts and perception do not dictate our interpretations of the world, they are often capable of deciding between them. Emerson, the man and Emerson, the thinker never completely left the world of common human experience, never sought to dwell, with the Over-soul alone, among the clouds of Plato’s heaven. His writing also suggests a critical attitude toward the apparent excesses of Emerson’s individualism. For it suggests that romantic individualism arises from uncritical use of creative insight. The alternative involves a greater stress upon cooperation and collaboration. Though Emerson’s individualism is less extreme than Thoreau’s, involving as it does a deep-felt mission to help others help themselves, helping others does not amount to collaboration with them. Even the best aimed, most needed charity does not engage and challenge self and others as do cooperative undertakings.
Emerson’s point is that we need to rely upon the creative individual, freed of the felt need to conformity, to supply interpretations of experience. However, since interpretations and insights are not self-certifying, it follows that great importance attaches to understanding alternative interpretations or theories. Otherwise, there will be no possibility of tests between such alternatives. This requires tolerance of alternative perspectives. It requires, as well, the attempt at sympathetic understanding of alternative points of view.
Communications between alternative viewpoints is crucial if we are to put ourselves in a position for deciding between alternatives in an intelligent manner. Besides listening to the internal voice, we must also do our best to listen to voices from without. The opposite of conformity is not simple self-assertion, or uncritical persistence in one or another prejudice, not even ones own; these are merely two sides of the same bogus coin. The alternative is conclusions based upon well-informed, intelligent communications. The facts of social and intellectual complexity in the modern world, no less than humanity’s power over nature, make it imperative to think, deploy the full powers of human intelligence.
Emerson provides a framework, or basic value orientation, for flexible relations to the world around us including the social world of joint projects and purposes. Yet this framework leaves us as isolated individuals where it is not supplemented by emphasis upon empirical inquiry and tests of our insights and intuitions. Our actions in the world, and even the full development of the self, depend upon cooperation with others in every crucial sphere. But considerable inquiry, however informal, is required merely to find those most suited to such joint undertakings. For example, one does not effectively distinguish a momentary wish or feeling from a formative and enduring desire on the basis of 5 minutes’ conversation. Yet momentary wishes are near useless as a basis of long-term cooperation.
In order to avoid being atomized and isolated, to avoid a mere phenomenal existence, Emersonian intuition requires the addition of a tough-minded empiricism, oriented to the lush growth of human expression and suited to intelligent cultivation of the best in others. Though “the sensual man conforms thoughts to things, the poet conforms things to his thoughts.” Emerson succeeded in conforming generations of Americans to his thought. Now, in an age where conformity is used in commercials as an advertising gimmick, Emerson would probably offer the following: “Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now.”.