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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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English Literature

A globe-trotting lecturer, essayist extraordinaire, poet, theologian, and philosopher who interpreted and developed key ideas of the modern age, Ralph Waldo Emerson was all of these things and more. The development of American culture and literature as we know it today would have been impossible without Emerson. Read on to find out why.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Biography

Early years and education

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston. His father, a prominent Unitarian minister, died in 1811, leaving his wife to bring up 8-year-old Emerson and his four brothers alone. Emerson attended Boston Latin School followed by Harvard Divinity School and was an average student at both.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harvard University Campus, StudySmarterHarvard University Campus, Pixabay.com

After graduating from Harvard, he had an unsuccessful stint as a school teacher before deciding to follow in his father's footsteps and become a Unitarian minister at the age of 21. He quickly grew dissatisfied with both his job and the Unitarian religion.

The death of his first wife in 1829 threw him into a full-blown personal crisis. Emerson dropped everything, quit his job, and sailed to Europe, where he would stay for a year, absorbing as much literature, art, and culture as he could.

Early career and the beginning of Transcendentalism

When he returned to the United States in 1833, Emerson set himself up in Concord, Massachusetts, and began his career as a lecturer and essayist. He married Lydia Jackson (insisting she changes her name to Lidian) in 1835, and published his first book, Nature, in 1836. In this text, he introduced some of his key ideas such as idealism and unity. While well-received in England, it failed to reach a popular audience.

Nature did attract a number of followers, however, such as Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, all of whom started meeting at Emerson's house regularly. Eventually, this group of like-minded writers and intellectuals would become known as Transcendentalists and create their own magazine, The Dial (1840-1844), as an outlet for their ideas.

While Transcendentalists differed among themselves, in general they all agreed on the importance of individual free will and the divine significance of the natural world.

Transcendentalism was an early nineteenth-century intellectual movement that emphasized the importance of both the natural world and of individual expression and choice.

Emerson was a sincere and hospitable friend to many people, encouraging young writers to express themselves and publish (after reading Leaves of Grass, he famously sent Walt Whitman a letter, the heading of which read: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career."). He was also a loving father to 4 children, and never fully recovered from the sudden death of his 5-year-old son, Waldo, in 1842.

Rise to fame

Emerson rose to international fame with the publication of his Essays, First Series in 1841. As his fame grew, he also stirred controversy. His 1838 Divinity School Address, which criticized Christianity for relying too much on tradition and history, shocked its audience so much that he wasn't invited back to speak there for another 30 years.

Emerson also weighed in on issues such as The Indian Removal Act, The Mexican War, and The Fugitive Slave Act, publicly registering his strong disapproval of them all. He did not, however, address these topics in any of his lectures or essays, which tended to be more personal and abstract. He continued a heavy lecture circuit throughout the 1840s, publishing Essays, Second Series in 1844, and his collected poems in 1846. In 1847, he sailed to Europe for a year-long lecture tour.

Later years and death

Emerson would continue publishing and lecturing throughout the 1850s and 1860s, by that time an established celebrity intellectual. In the 1870s, he began to show signs of senility and failing health. His publications and lectures slowed down drastically, and in 1875 he stopped writing entirely. He died of pneumonia on April 27, 1882, and was buried in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.1,4

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Major Contributions

The ideas Ralph Waldo Emerson developed in his essays had an enormous impact on education, morality, religion, and literature (especially poetry). Below are brief summaries of six of Emerson's most important and influential essays.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays

Nature (1836)

In this wide-ranging book-length essay, Emerson engages with central ideas in philosophy and religion, drawing on the work of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Berkeley, and Kant; poets such as Shakespeare, Herbert, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and central ideas from Christianity and Hinduism.

Emerson offers a definition of nature as all that is "NOT ME," so that it includes both what we commonly think of as the natural world as well as human artifacts.1 After noting the paradox that nature always surrounds us yet seems distant and inaccessible, Emerson claims that we need "the eye and heart of a child" to truly see it. Observing the natural world, we should lose all sense of self and become "a transparent eye-ball."1

Emerson then identifies four purposes of the natural world: commodity, beauty, language, and discipline (in the sense of academic or intellectual discipline). Through these purposes, nature is the source of all intellectual, moral, religious, and artistic truth.

In the rest of the essay, Emerson broaches the philosophical problem of idealism - of whether the world exists independently of human consciousness and experience. Emerson ultimately thinks that idealism is true, in other words, that the world does not exist independently of consciousness.

However, since matter, God, and humanity are really a single "universal essence," this does not mean that reality is impermanent or unstable.1 Emerson concludes the essay with a call to immerse ourselves in nature in order to truly understand God, the world, morality, and ourselves.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, A Forest, StudySmarterA forest, Pixabay.com

"The American Scholar" (1837)

Originally delivered as the year's Phi Beta Kappa address, in this essay Emerson outlines three sources of knowledge: nature, books, and action. He describes each of them, and ranks them by importance.

Nature is the most important of these three. Emerson thinks that our observation of nature is the basis of natural laws, and since these laws rely on logic - a function of the human brain - they teach us just as much about the mind as about nature. In his own words, "Its [nature's] beauty is the beauty of his [man's] own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind."1

There is a close connection between Emerson's claim that nature is the most important source of knowledge and the definition of nature he develops in Nature (1836).

Action, by which Emerson means working and being active in public life, is the next most important source of knowledge. It is only by such action that "thought can...ripen into truth."1 Emerson insists that action should be an essential part of everyone's education.

Finally, books are also an important source of knowledge if used correctly. Emerson contrasts the "bookworm" with the "creative reader."1 The bookworm worships books and the act of reading, and so is preoccupied with the past and with others' ideas. The creative reader only uses books for her own inspiration, and uses them to produce knowledge in her own right.

"The Divinity School Address" (1838)

Addressing the senior class of soon-to-be ministers at Harvard Divinity School, Emerson opens by praising the beauty of nature and the human inclination towards virtue. He argues that this inclination is natural and an "intuition," meaning it can't really be taught or even communicated.

This inclination is, however, what makes us good and gives meaning to our lives, revealing the existence of God and our place in the world. Seeking to be good makes us "strong by the whole strength of nature."1 Jesus, along with all of history's greatest poets and prophets, recognized this fact.

Emerson then begins a criticism of what he calls "historical Christianity," which has become too focused on rituals and institutions rather than the real meaning of Jesus' teachings. Partly as a result of this, the teachings of the Church have become boring and irrelevant, preaching "as if God were dead."1 Emerson urges his listeners to teach by example, to get involved in the lives of their parishioners as friends and teachers rather than as "spectral" preachers who bore their audiences once a week.1

Historical Christianity is Emerson's term for Christianity as he saw it being practiced in contemporary churches, mainly Unitarian ones. He thought it was dry, boring, and actually harmful. Despite this criticism, Emerson was deeply religious and considered himself a Christian.

Many in Emerson's audience, particularly the Divinity School faculty members, were scandalized by what they perceived as an attack on Christianity. The address started a controversy that would draw a great deal of attention to Emerson, who was accused of being an atheist. He refused to retract any of his criticism, and would not be invited to speak at Harvard again for over 30 years.

"Self-Reliance" (1841)

One of the most famous works from Essays, First Series (1841), this essay develops Emerson's most important contribution to ethical theory. Arguing that there is "a divine idea" within each of us, he urges us to trust our instincts or intuition.1

The first obstacle to this belief in ourselves is conformity. We are often willing to silence our inner voice if it contradicts what we are taught by our parents, teachers, churches, or society in general. The second major obstacle is our desire to be consistent, or to never contradict ourselves. Emerson totally dismisses this worry, famously claiming that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."1

Part of Emerson's reason for urging us to trust our inner light or inner voice is his belief that we are all part of the same "divine spirit" (ibid. 1171). This means that the source of our intuition is ultimately God, and to ignore it is to ignore God. Self-Reliance, then, turns out to be reliance on God, and since God is a part of all of us, reliance on each other, too.

Emerson concludes the essay by criticizing religion, culture, education, and technology for the part they play in repressing self-reliance. He calls on his readers to be less materialistic and to focus on developing themselves spiritually and intellectually.

"The Poet" (1844)

First published in Essays, Second Series, "The Poet" is the source of some of Emerson's most influential ideas about literature and poetry. He begins by criticizing the poetry of his day for being focused on following formal rules (of rhyme, meter, and subject matter) at the expense of saying anything meaningful. The real poet, according to Emerson, "announces that which no man foretold," in other words, speaks a meaningful truth for the first time.1

His claim that "It is not meters, but a meter-making argument, that makes a poem" would pave the way for poetry that was not bound to any specific formal pattern, also known as free-verse poetry.1 Many American poets, especially Walt Whitman, would be inspired by Emerson's ideas.

"Experience" (1844)

This thoughtful, brooding essay, also published in Essays, Second Series, was Emerson's response to the sudden death of his beloved son, Waldo, at the age of five. Regarding this devastating loss, Emerson famously said that he "grieve[s] that grief can teach [him] nothing...Nothing is left us now but death."1

Emerson goes on to identify seven "lords of life" that shape everyone's experience: "Illusion, Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, and Subjectiveness."1 He explores each of these topics in a somewhat melancholy, wandering manner, often lamenting the difficulty of discovering real meaning or knowledge in life as he does so.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Philosophy

Ralph Waldo Emerson never developed a formal philosophical system, but worked out his ideas piecemeal in his essays. As the summaries of some of his more important essays above hints, they often deal with topics in science and metaphysics, ethics, religion, and education.

  • Metaphysics: In the simplest terms, metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that tries to answer the question "What exists?" Emerson has two interesting answers. First, he claims that existence is a process. This means that nothing is permanent, and that all facts may change with time. Second, he claims that all of existence is a single unity. This means, for example, that people are essentially identical to each other and to nature. Emerson never explains the apparent contradiction that all things are identical and that all things are constantly changing.3
  • Ethics: Emerson's ethical thought is concerned with the idea of virtue, which he discovers primarily by identifying heroes (also called Representative Men). For Emerson, virtues tend to celebrate life, youth, energy, and creativity. Self-reliance, as discussed above, has a central place in Emerson's list of virtues along with trust and reasonable skepticism.3
  • Religion and Education: Emerson's philosophy of education and religion are based on the same premise: that institutions such as schools and churches should be useful to life and to the development of the virtues outlined above. On these grounds, he thinks that education should prioritize activity and creativity and that religion should inspire activity and engagement with the world.3

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Hinduism

As a student at Harvard, Emerson developed an interest in India and Hinduism. Though he could not read Sanskrit and lacked direct access to any sacred Hindu texts, he read whatever excerpts and paraphrases in French and English that he could get his hands on. In 1845, he finally obtained copies of the full English translations of the Bhagavad Gita and the Vishnu Purana. While these translations had been available for some time in Europe, Emerson's generation was the first to have access to them in the United States.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hindu Temple, StudySmarterHindu Temple in Madurai, Pixabay.com

Many of Emerson's ideas, such as the metaphysical unity of God, nature, and humanity, his disregard for books, and the power and responsibility of the individual, were all at some level inspired by his engagement with Hindu texts, and he made occasional references to gods and stories from these texts in his essays.

In Representative Men (1850), Emerson would classify the Bhagavad Gita as a text that transcends time and place, comparable to other great works like Plato's dialogues. He would draw a comparison between Plato and the Gita as presenting two opposing views of entire cultures and the individuals within them.

For Emerson, Plato represents variety and otherness, while the Gita represents unity and oneness. This generates a whole series of oppositions, such as caste and culture, power and distribution, fate and free will, that would preoccupy Emerson throughout the 1850s and 60s.2

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Poems

Ralph Waldo Emerson's book of collected poetry was well-received in his own lifetime and includes some works that are still widely read and recognized today. Two of his more well-known poems are 'Concord Hymn' and 'Brahma'.

'Concord Hymn' (1837)

Written for the completion of a monument to commemorate the beginning of the American Revolution at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the poem famously states:

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world.

This description of the American Revolution as an event with humble beginnings that would have major consequences for world history would quickly be adopted into the mythology of the newly developing nation.

The poem consists of four quatrains of four lines each with an alternating rhyme scheme in iambic tetrameter (four two-syllable feet in each line, with a stress on every other syllable). Both the form and the word 'Hymn' in the poem's title suggest that it is meant to be sung, and also impart a religious or spiritual significance to the Revolution.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Revolutionary War Soldiers, StudySmarterRevolutionary War Soldiers, Pixabay.com

Written over half a century after the Revolution, the poem goes on to note that the bridge where the Battle of Concord took place has fallen into disrepair. The speaker hopes that the new monument, unlike the bridge, will keep the spirit of the Revolution's heroes alive for future generations.

'Brahma' (1856)

Reflecting Emerson's engagement with Hinduism (Brahma is the creator god in sacred Hindu texts), this short poem written in four quatrains with an alternating rhyme scheme expresses some of Emerson's key philosophical ideas. The speaker of the poem is the god Brahma, who tells the reader:

Far or forgot to me is near;

Shadow and sunlight are the same;

The vanished gods to me appear;

And one to me are shame and fame.

The poem uses the figure of Brahma to exemplify Emerson's idea of metaphysical unity, in which not only seemingly natural opposites (far and near, shadow and sunlight) turn out to be identical, but so do human ideas about value (shame and fame). The poem ends by addressing the reader:

But thou, meek lover of the good!

Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

In the context of Emerson's ideas about religion and morality, the "lover of the good" represents the unthinking believer in social or religious dogma, who thinks that the good is whatever their teacher or preacher says it is. The active, creative principle represented by Brahma is the true good, but its acceptance requires us to turn our backs on many conventionally accepted ideas.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Quotes

All sensible people are selfish, and nature is tugging at every contract to make the terms of it fair."

"The Conduct of Life" (1860)

People wish to be settled: only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."

"Circles" (1841)

The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one."

"Friendship" (1841)

It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, 'Always do what you are afraid to do.'"

"Heroism" (1841)

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."

"Self-Reliance" (1841)

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."

"Self-Reliance" (1841)

Men are conservatives when they are least vigorous, or when they are most luxurious. They are conservatives after dinner."

"New England Reformers" (1844)

What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered."

"Fortune of the Republic" (1878)

Hitch your wagon to a star."

"Society and Solitude" (1870)

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Key takeaways

  • Born in Boston in 1803, Ralph Waldo Emerson would become one of America's most important and influential intellectuals by the 1840s.
  • Emerson is most famous for his lectures and essays. Some of the most important of these are "Nature" (1836), "The Divinity School Address" (1837), "Self-Reliance" (1841), "The American Scholar" (1841), and "Experience" (1844).
  • Emerson's key philosophical contributions include his metaphysical ideas of process and unity, his ethical idea of the virtue of self-reliance (or self-trust), and his criticisms of the education system and Christianity.
  • These ideas contributed to the founding of Transcendentalism, an important American intellectual movement.
  • Emerson was also a renowned poet. His well-known poems include 'Concord Hymn' and 'Brahma.'

References

1. Baym, N. (General Editor). The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B 1820-1865. Norton, 2007

2. Goodman, Russell. "East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century America: Emerson and Hinduism." Journal of the History of Ideas, 1990

3. Goodman, Russell, "Ralph Waldo Emerson", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2020

4. Tolchin, Neal, "Ralph Waldo Emerson", The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Criticism and Theory, 2005

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American lecturer, essayist, and poet who made major contributions to literature and philosophy in the mid-nineteenth century.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is most known for his essays, where he develops his ideas about nature, self-reliance, religion, and poetry.

If Ralph Waldo Emerson has just one belief, it is that humanity, God, and nature are identical. All of his other beliefs flow from this central one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was not a fighter by character, and his writing tends to be abstract and philosophical. He did oppose slavery and war, and believed in women's rights, but rarely wrote about these things.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's most famous poem is probably 'Concord Hymn', which immortalized the Battle of Lexington and Concord that started the American Revolution.

Final Ralph Waldo Emerson Quiz

Question

Which location is Emerson most closely associated with?

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Answer

Concord, Massachusetts

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Question

Which lecture got Emerson effectively banned from Harvard for 30 years?

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Answer

The Divinity School Address

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Question

What are Emerson's two key metaphysical ideas?

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Answer

Process and Unity

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What does Emerson think the most important source of knowledge is?

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Answer

Nature

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Question

What is the name of the intellectual movement that Emerson began?

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Answer

Transcendentalism

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What type of poetry did Emerson's writing help inspire?

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Free verse

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Which of the following are obstacles to self-reliance?

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Conformity and Consistency

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Which Hindu god was the inspiration for one of Emerson's most famous poems?

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Answer

Brahma

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Which tragic event inspired the essay 'Experience'?

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The sudden death of his young son

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Which phrase did Emerson coin to immortalize the beginning of the Revolutionary War?

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The shot heard round the world.

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Who was the author of the 1836 book, Nature?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Which sentence best summarizes the main idea of Nature?

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Become a transparent eye-ball.

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What are the four purposes of nature?

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Commodity, beauty, language, and discipline.

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What is the definition of philosophical idealism?

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Only ideas exist or can be known.

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How was Nature received after its publication?

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It was unpopular, but attracted a small number of enthusiastic followers.

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What did Emerson mean by saying that his age was "retrospective"?

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It was backward-looking and focused on the past.

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What do we need in order to truly see nature?

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The eyes and heart of a child.

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What is the first experience that usually causes people to doubt realism?

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Rapid motion while traveling.

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In what way is nature a commodity?

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It satisfies our physical needs for food and shelter.

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In what way is beauty one of the purposes of nature?

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We take natural pleasure in experiencing it, acting out our plans in it, and creating art inspired by it.

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In what way is language a purpose of nature?

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Our vocabulary, concepts, and moral understanding are all based on nature.

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How is one purpose of nature to be a discipline?

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It is an intellectual discipline that can teach us whatever we need to know.

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What is the best summary of Self-Reliance?

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Trust yourself.

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According to Emerson, what separates an average person from a great one?

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Belief in their inner voice.

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What are the two greatest obstacles to Self-Reliance?

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Conformity and Consistency

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Finish the quotation: 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

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adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

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What example of a Self-Reliant person does Emerson give?

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A sturdy lad from Vermont

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What does Emerson say about our duties to other people?

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We need to consider them in relation to our intuition.

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Why is Emerson skeptical of technology?

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He thinks it is both good and bad because it causes us to lose some of our skills.

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Why does Emerson think we need to change our relationship to our property?

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Because we confuse what we own with who we are.

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What is the ultimate source of our intuition?

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God

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What  does Emerson use as a metaphor to describe inconsistencies that make sense when viewed in the long run?

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A sailboat

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Choose two words that complete the quotation: 

"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is _________; that imitation is _______."

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ignorance, suicide

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What is a negative side of Self-Reliance?

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It is commonly used to justify selfishness

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