Helpful source for you to consult:
Transcendentalism (from Harmon and Holman's A Handbook to Literature): "A reliance on the intuition and the conscience.... The group [of transcendentalists] seemed to agree that within the nature of human beings there was something that transcended human experience--an intuitive and personal revelation." "Transcendentalists believed in living close to nature and taught the dignity of manual labor. They strongly felt the need of intellectual companionships and emphasized spiritual living. Every person's relation to God was to be established directly by the individual rather than through a ritualistic church. They held that human beings were divine in their own right, an opinion opposed to the doctrines held by the Puritan Calvinists in New England. Self-trust and self-reliance were to be practiced at all times, because to trust self was really to trust the voice of God speaking intuitively within us. The transcendentalists believed in democracy and individualism." "The transcendentalists were among the early advocates of the enfranchisement of women." "Ultimately...transcendentalism was an epistemology--a way of knowing--and what tied together the frequently contradictory attitudes of the loosely formed group was the belief that human beings can intuitively transcend the limits of the senses and of logic and directly receive higher truths denied to more mundane methods of knowing."
1. Write down your definition of "self-reliance."
2. Share your definition in 5 small groups of 4-5 people apiece. Then do the following three things: (a) come up with a definition of "self-reliance" to share with the class; (b) do the following exercise; and (c) consider how what you just discovered about Emersonian self-reliance relates to Transcendentalism.
Directions: Use à or ß to put each item in the correct column.
Self-reliance Conformity leading to falsity NOT self-reliance
Living from within
My own nature
What other people think
“a dead church”
“a dead Bible-society”
Relativism (what’s right for me is RIGHT)
Party affiliation; group think
What concerns ME
Punishment for nonconformity
Institutions (“the lengthened shadow of one man”)
Timid and apologetic attitude
The “authority of the soul”
Using the Bible as a crutch
Direct communication with the divine
Communication with “the inner ocean”
“Friend, child, sickness, fear, want, charity”
“I am the truth.”
Being an aborigine
Doing what makes me happy—following my heart
Honoring noble people, not harming ignoble people
“what each has” (property)
“what each is” (identity)
Responding uniquely to great thinkers of the past
3. Large-group discussion: Do you advocate Emersonian self-reliance or not? Do you really think that your own “inner voice” is more important than thinking, for example, what the Christian church--or some other faith--tells you to believe?
4. Connections to other reading assignments:
Plato: "his shadow on the wall" (par. 10). Plato and Emerson are both opposed to false appearances. But Plato thinks that Truth is transcendent; Emerson thinks that truth is whatever one thinks it is: "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" (par. 1).
Lakoff and Johnson would argue that believing your own truth is a prescription for discord with other people and nations.
Mill: Would Emerson approve of the liberty of thought and discussion? Would he agree with Mill on the negative (restrictive) role of the church and of its dogmas? Would Emerson agree with Mill on the following: "Those who desire to suppress it [opinion]...have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging" (par. 3)?
5. Do you see any contradictions or blind spots in Emerson’s essay?
6. Do you agree that the best way to cultivate the self is to be self-reliant in the Emersonian sense? What can we learn about the self from previous writers, existing institutions, history, and travel? Why throw out all of this and say, "It's all about ME"? If previous writers do not matter, why should we bother to read Emerson? Isn't there something self-indicting about his position?
7. Can you identify the fallacies in each of the following quotations?