How To Discover Your True Self
Ralph Waldo Emerson left his home in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1833 and sailed across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean island of Malta. His first wife had passed away in 1831 and he was still fraught with grief. A tour of Europe would, Emerson thought, ease his mind; a journey that would give him distance from his old wounds. But, Emerson did not wish to lose his sadness in the beauty of European architecture, history and culture. Instead, he travelled to Europe to company himself with the renowned artists and writers of his time, seeking wisdom and knowledge from men who he could previously only admire from a distance.
He spent several months in Italy, visiting Rome, Florence and Venice. In Rome, he met John Stuart Mill, who gave him a letter of recommendation to meet Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish essayist who Emerson respected.
Next, he moved to France and Switzerland, visiting the Jardin des Plantes and Voltaire’s old home in Ferney. He reflected that had Goethe been alive, he might have visited Germany. But, he quickly went onto England, travelling across the Channel from France, where he spent time with William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. All three were extraordinary writers and poets whom Emerson had much admired.
He recorded his meetings with these three men in his travel memoir ‘English Traits’. His description of these great characters whom he met on his travels, and who were so generous in giving their day to the unknown and unpublished American is a tilted balance of slight praise and unreserved disappointment. His disappointment in his meetings with these men is most obvious in his journal entries whilst he awaited his return ship at Liverpool.
Indeed, he viewed Wordsworth as a rather tired, stern, insular man whose opinions were of no value — he spoke a lot of nothing but did so with a great sense of moral conviction. Emerson was repulsed by his conformity to the wisdom of the time. He had assumed Wordsworth, given the beauty of his poetry, to be an eccentric character, someone who had a unique perspective to share.
His visit to see Coleridge was tiresome and of no use except that Emerson could now put a face to the colourful words he had read back at home. It was a brief spectacle, without the substance of an enjoyable conversation and he left with little memory of what Coleridge had told him.
Carlyle impressed Emerson. He shared lively anecdotes in conversations, his northern accent carried words with strength and he did not hold the pretentious instinct to hide from the common man as the others did. Still, Emerson left his presence with a quiet displeasure.
These men were great writers, poets and artists, the very beacon of European romanticism, and Emerson had expected to be captured in their presence, clinging to their every word with an immature delight like a child to its father. But, instead, Emerson left Liverpool without a meaningful word to say about his meetings with the English literary class.
In England, it was clear to Emerson just how ordinary the extraordinary were. These were men of great minds, men who defined what was possible, men who streamed lights and sounds into poetry, men who saw beauty in the darkest of corners. Yet, Emerson thought the characters of these extraordinary men to be rather dull, reclusive and plain, the reverse of what one would have assumed.
It is always assumed that there must be something unconventional or strange about great people. For Emerson, who had travelled far into the wet and misty countryside of England to meet such men, this ordinariness was an uncomfortable surprise. Emerson began to question his assumptions about the lives of great men.
Emerson asked himself, if the personalities of these extraordinary men — William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle — were, upon meeting, so ordinary, what, then, is preventing the ordinary person from becoming extraordinary?
“I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. . . .”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
‘Nature’ displays an attempt to solve the question of why the majority do not recognise the beauty and power of the natural world. The common man, Emerson wrote, imprisons himself with the demands of civilised society; he wakes at dawn and sleepwalks through the day, his head bowing towards his feet, never noticing the colours of the leaves or the patterns in the sky.
Yet, nature is charitable, it continues to produce, blossoming and hibernating according to the cycle of the seasons. Still, man never gives nor appreciates, only receives. He is apathetic, even unconscious to nature. His chest bares only emptiness and he loses himself in phoney attachments and greed. He does not realise that the soil in the ground, the fallen rain from the sky and the blowing of the wind are the same as the blood in his veins.
The sun evaporates the oceans, the wind carries the seeds, the rain feeds the flowers — “the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man” — but, man stays unaware, keeping the foolish belief that he is separate, a conqueror that must bruise everything that sways in his path.
Emerson was a true lover of nature; he found magnificence in every droplet of rain, every muddy field, every leafless tree. For nature is always beautiful, even at its most ghastly, even with its sharp teeth and venom.
He believed nature to be divine, referring to it as the “Universal Being”. When he spoke of nature, he was, at the same time, speaking of God. The two are inseparable, for man and the wind are one, both holding the spirit of nature, the “Supreme Being”. The spirit, the Supreme Being did not, Emerson wrote, build nature around us but, instead, through us, through our soul and body. Each creation, then, is divine, each is born from the supreme creator. Thus, every person has God within them, we are all “part or parcel of God”.
Nature flaunts its divinity and each creation knows how significant they are. The mountains stand tall and threatening, the flowers blossom with colours of all kinds, the lakes mirror the yellow stars and the animals roam with purpose. There exists a cycle, an evolution, a coming and going, a gathering, a feast, a fruition. It is a playground, a wonderful display of lights, echoes and vibrations.
But, man has refused to take part. We have forgotten. Still, there remains the God within us, a brilliance, a uniqueness that we have yet to realise. Everyone can sense this for there is an inborn calling within each of us that we are exceptional in some way, though few will ever discover what that is.
The majority are all too concerned with what society, their parents, their neighbours, their religion, their traditions expects of them. However, remove religion, history and tradition and we leave this world not with a void, but nature, one’s true self, the extraordinary. This is the god within, the divine will as Emerson called it. But, too many of us are a “god in ruins”, an ordinary face in a dull crowd.
“A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.”
“It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth.”
The purpose behind most of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s life works, including “Nature”, was to encourage Americans to stop admiring and imitating European ideals, culture and history. Emerson wanted America to separate itself and prove its own cultural and intellectual presence in the world.
The artists of America, Emerson wrote, should not look backwards into the ruins of European history, nor should they look beyond themselves for inspiration. For there is no generation better than the current generation, no past better than the present.
Instead, they should honour their own hearts and follow that which is burning in their spirit. Trust in oneself is also a trust in nature, or rather “the supreme being”. And, it is far greater to trust in nature than to follow the commands of others or imitate the works of people who passed long ago. Each is a suppression of the true self. For imitation and obedience breeds dreariness, it is without all the uncertainty and colour of imagination and the soul.
Emerson wanted America to be a nation of self-reliant, unique, exceptional and intuitive individuals that rejected the comforts of conformity. This was his life’s purpose — to hearten the American in becoming their true, extraordinary self.
Extraordinary men — William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle to name a few — hold a great faith in nature, they embrace a deep commitment to their true, authentic self. They do not tame the chaos within, they do not reduce themselves to facts and statistics, nor do they follow convention merely because someone tells them to do so.
Great men rejoice in solitude under the night time sky, surrounded by foothills and trees, when the stars tell their stories and the animals drum in the distance. Here, man learns of his relations with the natural world and thus, with himself also.
“The primary wisdom is intuition. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their origin.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Thank you — Harry J. Stead.