A leading figure in the literary movement known as Transcendentalism,
Emerson attacked the rationalism, industrialism and materialism of his
age. Emerson believed that the divine spirit was present in every
individual and that self-reliance was the means by which individuals could
discover the divinity within. Emerson's essays and poems profoundly
influenced the works of Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt
Whitman and countless others. And, Emerson's celebration of the individual
and emphasis on the spiritual, place him among the central figures in the
history of ideas in America.
"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance, that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes such impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents....
Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated in their heart, working through their hands, predominating their being....
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. 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. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind....
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little
statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great
soul has simply nothing to do. He may well concern himself with his
shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow
speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything
you said today. "Ah so you shall be misunderstood." Is it so
bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and
Socrates and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton,
and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great
is to be misunderstood....
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