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Echoes of Paine: Tracing the Age of Reason through the Writings of Emerson Essay

In his essay, “Echoes of Paine: Tracing the Age of Reason through the Writings of Emerson,”  Webb seeks to illuminate Emerson’s position on religion and Christianity through his writing.  He interestingly notes the similarities between Thomas Paine, infamously known as a radical and even an atheist, and Emerson, whose clever phrasings and physical distancing from pain made him much more acceptable and even revered by American political society.  However, Webb asserts in his essay that while he was a champion for many, his actually beliefs were often less than completely understood.However, his religious beliefs did confound and intimidate theologians.  In his essays “Self Reliance” and “Nature,” Emerson supports the religious concept of Deism, which recognizes the belief in a Creator,  recognizes an afterlife and, recognizes the need to live a virtuous life on earth.  This differs from the stricter and more specific teachings of Christianity which made many uncomfortable.One of the reasons that Emerson adopted the view of Deism is that he was more interested in the rationality of science.  Because the Christians believed the Bible to be divinity, they had to believe in its miracles.  However, Emerson, Paine and other transcendental and writers of the Age of Reason, could not scientifically explain these miracles and tended to look at them as symbolic rather than actual.This is not to say, as Webb points out, that Emerson was anti-Jesus.  He believed in faith and Jesus and a higher power, but fell just short of recognizing Jesus as divine and felt, instead, that people found their higher powers in a variety of places.  Emerson’s favorite was in nature.Emerson managed to escape the criticism that Paine endured for his own ideologies.  However, though many do not realize this, their ideas on religion and theology were strikingly similar.  For whatever reason, Emerson emerged as a revered thinker of the American 1800s and today.In his essay, “Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance,’ Sweeny, and Prufrock,” Cook examines the effect that Emerson’s essay has on the development of the concept of individual man by comparing it to other prominent literary offerings of the day.  He compares Emerson to T.S. Eliot and notes particularly their similarities and differences in defining man.Emerson clearly had a faith in the human soul, according to Cook, a quality which Eliot and others found extremely faulty and naïve. In addition, Emerson scorned learning and academia from traditional “book” sources and eschewed the importance of relationships for a certain “oneness” within an individual.  Cook notes that while Emerson had a profound distaste for the Puritanical notions of rigid outward behavior and the importance of reliance on the group, he did maintain an utmost respect and need for individual morality.However, both Emerson and Eliot hated the notion that intellectualism might be overcoming the importance of emotions.  Suppressing emotions, again, was a hated Puritanical concept, and, interestingly, both men had familial ties to Puritanism.  Perhaps their reactions against its tenets were a result of their early exposure to its indoctrinations, suggests the author Cook.Another important idea on Emerson’s essay that Eliot denies is what is known as Emerson’s “Great Man” theory.  He says that every true man is, himself, an age, an institution, a cause worthy of a prominent place in history.  The effects of certain men create the history which shapes the world.  Eliot and others downplay this idea, seeking instead for the relationships among men, a collection of men, to mold and shape history.  This is an unresolved dispute between these two American writers.Cook goes on to show the influence of Emerson’s essay on some of the great, classical writings of Eliot such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Sweeny Among the Nightingales.”  The focus seems to be on the definition of man and the answer to the questions “Who Am I.”  Certainly, Emerson’s “Self Reliance” poses a plausible way to help an individual answer that question.Many writers of nonfiction and fiction alike tend to espouse their own political, social, and theological ideas through their essays, poems, stories and dramas.  These writers refine their ideas by the notions of their own particular era.  One intensely prolific era in American history was known as the Age of Reason, which came as a response to the overwhelming dogmatic and senselessly romantic eras which preceded it.  One particular writer which holds his place as a beloved figure in American nonfiction despite his seemingly radical ideas is Ralph Waldo Emerson.  His essay, “Self Reliance,” gives man and society a plan for gaining definition, morality and self-worth.Emerson is noted as “championing the mid-nineteenth-century transcendentalmovement, bringing Americans closer to nature, and developing a new national identity based on self-reliance” (513).  Unlike others with similar thoughts concerning religion and theology, notably Paine,  Emerson’s radical ideas did send shockwaves through the theological community (514). One way in which Emerson, and others such as Thomas Paine, and to an extent, T.S. Eliot,  went about redefining man in society is to attack its dependence on the strict, dogmatism of organized religion.This is not to say that Emerson was opposed to organized religion.  In fact, Webb quotes Donald Gelpi who asserts: “religious passion inspired almost everything Emerson wrote” (Webb 513).  Emerson seems to hope all his readers will come to see that even though he had a very real skepticism towards organized and orthodox religions, spirituality, particularly his own brand of transcendental spirituality, is an important part in every man’s life.  He believed that morality asa individual was an utmost virtue.The religious movement that Emerson supported was called Deism, which allows for a more individualized approach to worship, praise, faith and spirituality than traditional Christianity afforded.  Deism’s particular tenets are as follows:§  “a belief in a universal First Cause wherein a Creator was responsible for existence§   the acceptance of a future state of being after death§   a commitment to living virtuously while on Earth.According to Webb, Deists sought to strip Christianity of its necessary revelations, instead relying on the natural world as proof of the existence of a Divine Architect” (Webb 515).One can see that these three virtues are not ideologically different from those of Christianity; nevertheless, the orthodox community was intimidated by Emerson’s and other transcendentalists’ suggestions that their teachings were not accurate.  However, Deism provides for the individual expression of spirituality and morality that Emerson felt was missing from traditional religions.Two particular discrepancies afflict this theological debate.  First, Deists and Emerson fall short of giving divine qualities to Jesus Christ, and second, they do not take Biblical miracles as exact reality.   By again citing Gelpi, Webb makes sure that his readers know that “Emerson regarded Jesus as the most morally influential man who ever lived, a person of imparalleled [sic] magnanimity and spiritual greatness of soul”(521).  However, Emerson did not believe in the divinity of Jesus.  This marked a clear separation between Emerson and the traditional, New England church.Clearly, many scientists of this Age of Reason were finding it difficult to reconcile the miracles noted in the Bible and scientific reality. While this was also true for Emerson, it did not stop him from remaining firm in his faith in one divine creator.    In fact, Webb notes that Emerson relied very heavily on his belief in God as the make and communicator of Nature (522) but noted that “the existence of true miracles would degrade God into a showman incapable of capturing the world’s attention without a flashbox or a hidden chamber” (522).  Emerson believed that God communicated through simpler channels such as nature instead of through great, sensational miracles which demeaned Him, making him appear more as a magician than as a divine being.Emerson noted that the Bible itself interfered with the relationship between God and man.  In “Self Reliance,” he notes,  “If therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fullness and completion?” (733).  With this rhetorical questions, Emerson is noting that the very conception of a religious thought is certainly not indicative of its fullness and uses the acorn metaphor to explain this.  Religion in its fullness cannot be understood by some old vestiges of its sanctity and practice in the past.  For him, spirituality was intensely individual and in no way dependent upon a structured curriculum.Many readers recall some of the more memorable lines of “Self Reliance” of which the following is one of the most popular: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 as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall (Emerson 728).In this citation resounds the overall theme of Emerson’s ideas.  Emerson pushes for individuality on all accounts.  He has a tremendous faith in man, unlike many of his other contemporaries.  To remain foolishly consistent to anything is the flaw he warns all against – foolish consistency to religious belief, to self identification, to all aspects of humanity.In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson draws a parallel between the function of society, which he feels is unmoving, and the fluidity of man:  “Society is a wave. The wave moves onward,but the water of which it is composed, does not”  (742).  In this analogy, men are the water; they move, but society itself stays behind.  The idea he is trying to get across is that men make their own way throughout life, but societies do not travel with them.  Therefore, to define oneself by his own society is a fault.Man’s definition of himself was a cause for concern for Emerson.  In his essay, he sadly notes that “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage” (Emerson 733).  Again, Emerson does not want men to define himself by others, or worse, to be afraid to define himself at all.  This idea is prominent in other writers of the day, particularly in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (Cook 224).  This character in this classic poem is also afraid, timid, and has a “excessive fear of expressing himself” (224).  Many people also have this fear making the sad Prufrock a symbol for them all.Emerson urges nonconformity but warns against public response:What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in 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 our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude (727).Here he is explaining that society is generally against the nonconformist and seeks to either keep him silent and alone or to conform him to the masses’ opinions.  Sometimes staying true to oneself is more difficult than a person can take “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure” (728).Cook notes that Prufrock, and all of those like him, have not listened well to the teachings of Emerson.  Prufrock fears expressing himself and is enslaved by his own anxieties.  He fears decision making and ultimate fades into nothingness (Cook 226).   Sadly, in his fear of being misunderstood by the lady he desires in the poem, he misses one of Emerson’s most important lessons:  “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”  (Emerson 729). How many other people live on, fearing the thing that should actually make them great?On the other hand, Emerson notes that the self-reliant man should fear nobody.  He eschews the idea of singular greatness bestowed upon individuals by society. Cook notes that “One of the main purposes in Emerson’s essay is to overcome, in this fashion, the intimidations of ‘the man in the street’” (224).  These men worship kings and great leaders of the past but fail to recognize the value of themselves.  In a way, this runs parallel to Emerson’s distaste of clinging to older, dogmatic religions and his equal distaste of placing great stock in the older texts of history, including the Bible, as discusses above.  One of “Self-Reliance’s” more notable passages makes this extremely clear:Our reading is mendicant and sycophantic. In history, our imagination plays us false. Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day’s work; but the things of life are the same to both; the sum total of both is the same. Why all this deference to Alfred, and Scanderbeg, and Gustavus? Suppose they were virtuous; did they wear out virtue? As great a stake depends on your private act to-day, as followed their public and renowned steps. When private men shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen (Emerson 731).Here Emerson is noting that men are just as great as what follows, and what follows are the words and actions of private individuals.  Greatness does not exist in a vacuum, and therefore it must have the equal greatness of men to support it.  This is the individuality that Emerson seeks.The hobgoblin of consistency applies to every facet of a man’s life, but particularly points to his religious and personal views.  For spirituality to be individual and nonconforming, it must allow for personal reflections and interpretations.  Organized, orthodox religion does not do this.  Additionally, independent individuals must also adopt the personal approach to his thoughts, words and actions, and avoid conforming to the popular thought which will soon wane and die.   Emerson’s “Self Reliance” is a document that provides much thought for mankind both in the 1800s and today.

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