Ralph Waldo Emerson has been and still is a very influential figure of the American Literature. He was deeply influenced by what the mystics of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam and maybe other religions were trying to find out and express about the order of the world and the God. With his text “Self-Reliance” he introduced his own concept of God and expressed those ideas in his own ways to the New World. That idea was not about the God in heavens, but the God in us. So the subject of “Self-Reliance” as the title suggests, is about the realization of the God in us and by the reliance to the self, one can transcend to a higher existence. This idea can be appropriated into our daily lives even today, because it will serve as a lifestyle for the wise.
One of the main ideas of Emerson is living by the present. In our everyday life we are planning for future and worrying about the past. This, however, causes us to forget about our present. By thinking about the future and the past, our present time gets dimmed by the thoughts and our whole life becomes a subtler version of living, that is, we cannot enjoy our present because of our anxieties. Emerson says: “He (man) cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.” (83). Why living in the present is above time? Because time is a concept created by our thoughts and our memories, through which we infer that there is a future, but the only thing we have in our hands is the present. The philosopher Zeno had a paradox about time, he says that the moving of an arrow is just the illusion of the moments of a stable arrow joined in our mind. So, we might infer that present is the only real substance of universe and by living by it we can live the universe as a whole, without the constrictions of time.
One more important point that Emerson makes in his essay is that we should think critically and analyze information that we are presented with before accepting it. He says, “If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not.” Emerson warns us about such people that claim to know the right thing, and impose their knowledge on us. This reminded me of today’s problem of false information. Because we have the Internet it is easier to reach knowledge, and there are people who write blogs or make videos in order to inform us. However, they are ordinary people just like us, and that does not mean they know better. Therefore, to know something truly we should not work with information that we hear from others, instead we should live and experience for ourselves. This comes from the need to conform to society. Emerson says that most people dare not say their true thoughts. They quote somebody else, probably to escape the responsibility of the words they say. However, this makes those people like puppets. As humans, we have the ability of reason that distinguishes us from animals, and in the 21 st century we must try to use that reason and judge information by its quality, not by its source. To really live in society, we should not be afraid to be judged, because as Emerson says “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. Human nature means that we can change or make mistakes; that is not something to be ashamed of. On the contrary, if we do not make mistakes, it means that we are too immobile and cowardly.
Another thing that Emerson complained about is the nature of prayer. I think it could be applied to our day, because people still pray in the same way and their relationship with God is still problematic. Emerson thought that begging God for something is wrong from the start, because when you are truly praying you must be one with God. However, when you suppose God is separate being and ask him to do something for you, it is a dependent and dualistic relationship. Not only do you contradict the idea of self-reliance, but you are also implying that God is not within you as well. Plus, you are using God as a means to an end. You might be praying for something good, but still this is a selfish action. Today we still use religion for economic gains and even if we had good intentions, we do not understand that God emanates onto his creations. Understanding this idea would make our society less corrupt and more peaceful.
Finally, Emerson calls travelling a “fool’s paradise”. He does so, because in his point of view, travelling is just an excuse for people to escape from their selves. He says that no matter how far we travel, we are still the same person, and we cannot change something about ourselves by simply running away from it. Since we have to confront ourselves to actually change for the better, travelling and other sorts of escapes are only bad for us. Obviously, Emerson does not advice us not to travel at all. However, today’s society also uses traveling or other sorts of numbing things to escape the uncomfortable feeling of being the self. It sounds depressing, but to like who we are and be happy with ourselves we need to spend more time in solitude and try our best to improve who we are. It reminded me of Nietzsche because he thought that when sadness overcame us, it needed to be felt, not numbed with alcohol and so on. The same goes for Emerson, when we cannot bear to be ourselves, what we should do is accept ourselves and act in order to better it.
In conclusion, because Emerson’s work is about self-reliance, and self-betterment, it serves as a useful text that can guide and influence people from all times. Because it does not matter what year we are in, we always have room for improving ourselves. After all, we all exist as individuals and at the end of the day we are alone with ourselves. If we cannot depend on ourselves, we are not well equipped enough to live this life.