A Life of Self-Discovery: Guidance from Ralph Waldo Emerson on Learning About Ourselves
One could argue that the heart of Emerson’s true education occurred outside of the classroom. Although he attended Harvard University, he was an unexceptional student who graduated without distinction. He felt at odds with his peers and kept mostly to himself. He however read extensively and throughout his life was exposed to and influenced by the ideas of those such as Thomas Carlyle, Montaigne, Goethe, and Swedenborg. His true education, he conducted himself.
Emerson and the Transcendentalists believed in the strength of the individual and in the greatness of the individual human spirit. He believed that there is genius, beauty, and wisdom within each of us, if we listen to and find it. By nurturing oneself, listening to oneself, and by learning from one’s experiences and emotions, one can discover one’s own truth and self. And this process of discovery is both the journey and the end goal of life.
Emerson was thus on a lifelong journey to discover himself and his writings are his chronicles of that journey.
Learning as an Individual Task
Ultimately and above all else, he champions the importance of determining one’s truth by oneself. Learning is not done by imitation or by conforming to what others do or to what society might expect us to do. Each of us is different and therefore what is right and true for each of us will be different. The below is taken from his seminal essay, Self-Reliance.
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
Thus, we must each do our own work on ourselves, in our own way.
He warns against the temptations and dangers of conformity,
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 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.
There are no Shortcuts
And he argues that in order to know something, you have to go through the process of obtaining the knowledge yourself. There are no shortcuts to really knowing,
Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, – must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. What the former age has epitomized into a formula or rule for manipular convenience, it will lose all the good or verifying for itself, by means of the wall of that rule. Somewhere, sometime, it will demand and find compensation for that loss by doing the work itself. Ferguson discovered many things in astronomy which had long been known. The better for him.
Learning from Real, Raw Experience
Really knowing thus comes from the process of the mind ‘go[ing] over the whole ground.’ And this process of ‘knowing’ can take many forms. Ever the intellectual, Emerson nevertheless extols the knowledge that can only be gleaned from real, raw life,
Who knows himself before he has been thrilled with indignation at an outrage, or has shared the throb of thousands in a national exultation or alarm? No man can antedate his experience, or guess what faculty or feeling a new object shall unlock, any more than he can today the face of a person whom he shall see tomorrow for the first time.
And to some degree, he chases these feelings, even those of a darker shade,
There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth.
The world is our classroom and just as “the child amidst his baubles, is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force” so “in the game of life: love, fear, justice, appetite, man, and God interact.”
It All Comes Back to Ourselves
And for Emerson, all his efforts towards learning are always somehow in the end, directed back towards himself, for to Emerson, oneself is the beautiful mystery. He writes,
We go to Europe, or we pursue persons, or we read books, in the instinctive faith that these will…reveal us to ourselves.