Self-Reliance and Other Essays

By: Ralph Waldo Emerson

The very first paragraph of another book I read this summer, The Wilderness World of John Muir, opened with the description of the book Muir carried with him, read and reread, in all his wanderings of the High Sierra. The book was Volume I of The Prose Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His copy was published in 1870. When I went to buy the book for myself, a collection of Emerson's essays with such a title couldn't be found. And so, I picked up the most popular, highest reviewed modern day collection of Emerson's work.

Written in the 1800's, with such concentration of profound thought, Self-Reliance and Other Essays requires focus and takes longer to read than larger books. It's worth it. A mere 117 pages, I penned 48 quotes from it on individual index cards for my Commonplace Book (more than I have from any other book in my life thus far).

The book is a collection of six essays individually titled History, Self-Reliance, Friendship, The Over-soul, The Poet, Experience and the text of Emerson's famous graduation speech, the Divinity School Address. Though topics vary, each essay reads more like a chapter, like a variation, in Emerson's overarching message that life is to be lived from the inside, out.

One might call Self-Reliance and Other Essays the bible of the nonconformist. It's the credo of those who march to the beat of a different drummer, not to spite the world, but because they're in tune with a rhythm all their own.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter the world. 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.
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, headless of the riches that surround him, stands on tip toe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.
And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others.
All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a facility, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie,— an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.
No; the wisdom of the wise man consists herein, that he does not judge them; he lets them judge themselves, and merely reads and records their own verdict.
As the traveler who has lost his way, throws his reins on his horse’s neck, and trusts the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world.
Timaeus affirms that the plants are also animals; or affirms a man to be a heavenly tree, growing with his root, which is his head, upward...
The benefit overran the merit the first day, and has overran the merit ever since.
And because the indwelling Supreme Spirit cannot wholly be got rid of, the doctrine of it suffers this perversion, that the divine nature is attributed to one or two persons, and denied to all the rest, and denied with fury. The doctrine of inspiration is lost; the base doctrine of the majority of voices, usurps the place of the doctrine of the soul. Miracles, prophecy, poetry, the ideal life, the holy life, exist as an ancient history merely; they are not in the belief, nor in the aspiration of society; but, when suggested seem ridiculous. Life is comic or pitiful, as soon as the high ends of being fade out of sight, and man becomes near-sighted, and can only attend to what addresses the senses.

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