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