If I have a hero, it’s Ralph Waldo Emerson. He represents to me humanity’s potential: wise, self-reliant, honest, unencumbered by conformity, and able to enjoy every little detail of life as if they were all miracles.
He possessed the hallmark of a human being ahead of his time: he was hailed as a genius and simultaneously reviled as a subvert. His views were radical for his era, but his wisdom could not be denied, even by his detractors. Even Herman Melville, author and professed Emerson-hater, later described him as “a great man.”
I am convinced that all of the secrets to personal peace and freedom reside within the ideas recorded in Emerson’s essays and lectures. His eloquence is well-known from his famous quotations, yet most people today would find a full essay of his to be too verbose to digest in one sitting, if at all.
Perhaps this is why he is so widely quoted and so scarcely read. His works are full of difficult metaphors and archaic phrases that would require everyday people like you and me to really slow our eyes down from their normal scanning pace, and give ourselves plenty of moments to pause and think. Perhaps this is a good habit to develop anyway.
It’s worth the effort. I think the man is one of humanity’s greatest offerings to the world. His writing has effected a personal transformation in myself and who knows how many others in the two hundred years his ideas have been around. His writings are so altogether profound that I wonder why humanity still lags so far behind him. I suppose his difficult writing style has something to do with it.
“People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.“
A person’s opinion of the world they live in really seems to be a foolproof litmus test for their strength of character. The tendency towards blame and disdain seems to vary inversely with the virtues of courage and compassion.
The wisest people I know invariably revere the world, and the most ineffective ones hate it. For a while now I’ve believed that cynicism about the world is a method of defense against one’s one inadequacy. When a person is defeated at every turn, they tend to peg the whole world as the culprit. This relieves them from the painful responsibilities of humility and growth.
I have been on both sides. Knowing the world as an enemy removes responsibility for oneself. Behaving and speaking as though the world is against you is only a clever way of abandoning any accountability for the state of your life and the world you live in. Knowing the world as an ally instead of an adversary leaves no room for excuses.
I now recognize disdain for the world as sure sign of weakness, not just when I see it in others but also when I catch myself thinking that way. Whenever I’m caught up disparaging this or that, it’s a clear message to any astute observer that in that moment, I’ve lost my composure and maturity.
If you want to know if a person is a suitable teammate, lover, boss or employee, pay attention to their opinion of the world. It reveals all. Try it and see.
“There is an optical illusion about every person we meet.“
No matter how unassuming we are, a person’s appearance triggers certain assumptions that we aren’t even aware of. In any first encounter with a person, the brain involuntarily makes connections between the person’s looks and their social standing, income level, education, intelligence, trustworthiness, physical capability, values and worth.
We cannot keep track of all the assessments our brain is making behind the scenes, so it makes sense to assume that some part of your initial impression is certainly wrong, and you don’t know which part. Sometimes we are too trusting of new people, other times too dismissive.
If you really think about it, a first impression can never be accurate. First impressions consist only of a few details that jump out at you, and the interpretations your mind makes of them. So much just cannot be seen, let alone interpreted with fairness and without assumption. A whole person is far more complex a territory than can be mapped out in a single encounter.
Take a moment and think of a few of your long-time friends. Can you remember the moment you first met them, and the impression you got?
Without a doubt, in that moment, your brain told you a few things about them that turned out to be wrong.
“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.“
Emerson was an open critic of the academic culture of his time. He reasoned there was too much emphasis on deferring to the masters, and too little on self-reliance. A prolific academic himself, he was tired of listening to young Ivy-League men talking his ear off about religion and philosophy without using any of their own ideas.
This quote is more than a clever jab at vapid aristocrats. It illustrates a deep truth about science and knowledge in general. To understand the world we live in requires more than just the gathering of existing opinions. If education were nothing more than sorting and absorbing humanity’s knowledge, it would not take us beyond what we’ve already discovered.
For humanity to advance beyond itself, individuals must take it upon themselves to discover things nobody could ever teach them. This takes a committed spirit of inquiry, and a healthy mistrust of the ideals and convictions of others. Civil disobedience. Suspicion. Wonder.
Emerson was capable of conveying more insight in a simple statement than any human being I know of. I will never stop quoting him. But whenever I do repeat his words, I remember the above quotation, and remind myself that I should always have more to offer than only someone else’s insight.
And my favorite:
“Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. — `Ah, so you shall be sure to 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.”
Remembering this quote has protected me from so many instances of shame and self-doubt for things I’ve said and stances I’ve taken. One truth I keep encountering again and again is that one cannot stay the same person throughout life. As we experience more and more, our perspectives change and consequently so do our beliefs. Change is the unchangable state of the universe, so how could one’s beliefs stay the same throughout life?
Yet society seems to value a certain consistency of belief. We are expected not just to share our opinions, but to be them, to swear to them as a lifelong conviction. People proudly declare, “I am a conservative. I am a Christian. I am a Democrat.” If you equate your beliefs with yourself in this way, there is no room to ever genuinely reconsider, not without an insurmountable bias towards the beliefs you’ve already embodied. You’ll always feel a compulsion to protect those beliefs, as viscerally as if it’s your internal organs that are threatened, because you consider them to be just as much a part of you.
When someone is that afraid of being contradicted, they are no longer concerned with the truth, only with protecting their priceless investment in what they have said. To honor a statement you made yesterday as a binding declaration of who you are is a tragic, yet extremely common mistake. This is the fundamental error that plagues humanity: to mistake one’s ego for oneself. Enforcing an impossible, lifelong consistency in what you say and believe can only lead to dishonesty and despair.
Someone whose opinions change freely with experience is clearly someone who is not guided by dogma or the expectations of others, but instead by a clear internal compass of inquiry and honesty. To such a “pure and wise spirit,” it is far more important to seek the truth than to be regarded as having had it all along. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Emerson.
Whenever I feel a pang of regret for something I’ve said, I remember that all I did was speak what I thought at the time in hard words, even if today I speak different ones. It’s only human.
I picked only four lines from the entire works of Emerson. I had originally planned seven, but this post would have been too long. There is just so much wisdom in his works, and it takes so long to digest, that I’ll spend my whole life reading and rereading it.
Emerson’s entire works are available online, for free. Enjoy. His essay “Self-Reliance” is a great place to begin. Read softly and carry a big dictionary.