Emerson and the Emancipation of Human Ingenuity

Douglas Crets
6 min readDec 20, 2020

My goal was to read “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot and “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson this weekend. I accomplished both, but I think I got inspiration from Emerson’s essay. I thought Eliot’s long four part poem was way too abstract. There are a lot of lessons in it for modern poetry and things like canonic literature, but nothing that I think is immediately useful.

Where The Wasteland is an exploration of spiritual ennui in a modern world that has no direction, Emerson’s essay is of a more rooted time, before the American Civil War, during a time when a great schism had begun to develop between the mercantilist and slave-owning land owners of the South and the abolitionist and free thinkers of the North.

It was 1841, and Emerson set out to document how any American could find his way forward during a time of great tension. The progressive and more liberal members of the North wanted every man to be free, they wanted new laws and better living.

The South wanted to keep things traditional. They wanted to live as they had always lived, and they wanted to be left alone. The South preferred secession. It sounds so similar to today in America, where populism seems to swarm in everyone’s minds with utter simplistic conspiracy, while progressive-minded people who believe in science, the rule of law, and democracy would prefer to keep going forward.

To go forward, argued Emerson, you could not use simple solutions handed down to the people by those in power. You could not look at the past, you had to look within.

His famous quote, in Latin, is found at the end of the essay:

Ne te quaereris extra… Do not seek outside of yourself.

Advancement Only Happens When One Uses Private Genius

According to Emerson, the average person hates to think for himself. He prefers the readymade dogma of religion, or the catatonic lecturing from those in power. He seeks government, because he wants safety in number. But “he is weaker by every recruit to his banner.”

Because people love to follow the crowd, really bad ideas sometimes never go away.

Man draws religion into his arguments, because religion acts as a sedative, bringing up defenses and logical arguments that nullify the senses and are hard to prove. It asks us to tame our inner “chancellors of God,” our personal connections to cause and effect.

Dogma, ritual, institutions — rather than push life forward, they stall life and package its ideals into the most simplistic forms. They force mankind to seek out and stick to something Emerson called a “foolish consistency,” or the attempt to keep order in life, to make sure one never strays from the straight and narrow path.

He is famous for the phrase that points out that always looking backwards at our history, always focusing on not disturbing and not stepping out of line with this “foolish consistency” is the “hobgoblin of little minds”

Seeking Freedom on the High Seas

I don’t know for sure, but I think that Emerson had the rights of the slaves in his mind when he wrote this essay. There are poignant references to whipping, for instance.

“For your non-conformity, the world whips you with its displeasure” he writes, referring to the result of acting on our impulses and our instincts.

But even more poetic are his references to seafaring and ships. Now, I think a lot of people in American literature studies like to assume that because Emerson was from Massachusetts and was living in the time of the great whalers and the Boston Harbour’s Revolutionary History of the site of the Tea Party and visits by the British Armada that he was referring to these features of the local character.

but I like to think that Emerson was aware of another greater struggle, and one in particular that happened in the same year of the creation of this essay.

In February of 1841, the US Supreme Court voted in favor of the African slaves who had mutinied on the slave ship Amistad and sailed it north into the Atlantic near the United States, saying that these men had been taken into slavery illegally.

More importantly, the Supreme Court ruled quite boldly that these men could not be considered property, and therefore could not be considered to have impugned themselves against a treaty with the Spanish government about the importation of goods, including slaves, which were considered at the time to be 3/4 a man, and the property of their masters.

In his opinion, Judge Joseph Story laid out the case,

It is also a most important consideration, in the present case, which ought not to be lost sight of, that, supposing these African negroes not to be slaves, but kidnapped, and free negroes, the treaty with Spain cannot be obligatory upon them; and the United States are bound to respect their rights as much as those of Spanish subjects.

The conflict of rights between the parties, under such circumstances, becomes positive and inevitable, and must be decided upon the eternal principles of justice and international law. If the contest were about any goods on board of this ship, to which American citizens asserted a title, which was denied by the Spanish claimants, there could be no doubt of the right to such American citizens to litigate their claims before any competent American tribunal, notwithstanding the treaty with Spain. A fortiori, the doctrine must apply, where human life and human liberty are in issue, and constitute the very essence of the controversy.

When the Amistad arrived, she was in possession of the negroes, asserting their freedom; and in no sense could they possibly intend to import themselves here, as slaves, or for sale as slaves. In this view of the matter, that part of the decree of the district court is unmaintainable, and must be reversed.

Upon the whole, our opinion is, that the decree of the circuit court, affirming that of the district court, ought to be affirmed, except so far as it directs the negroes to be delivered to the president, to be transported to Africa, in pursuance of the act of the 3rd of March 1819; and as to this, it ought to be reversed: and that the said negroes be declared to be free, and be dismissed from the custody of the court, and go without delay.

This ruling, I feel, must have been strong in Emerson’s mind, and the trials of the slaves and the countless numbers before them, having been stolen from their countries and people and taken over vast oceans to become free labor and, basically, chattel, of wealthy Southern landowners, offered a very poetic and humbling metaphor.

You see several times in Emerson’s writing, when he refers to ships. “The voyage of the best ships is a zigzag line of a 1000 tacks.”

He then says “Society is a wave,” that the water itself never changes, yet people wish to take the energy of this great ocean of life and substitute it for their own work, which is actually the only thing that can replace the elements and make them new with the molecules of ingenuity and purpose.

He then says that “The white man has lost his aboriginal strength,” and though it probably erringly leans on tropes that were less politically aware than the ones we use today, Emerson refers to things like natural instincts and says that acting in instinct, and doing what one feels is right, which is notably contrarian, is the only path to our freedom.

The Death of Captain Ferrar during the Amistad mutiny

The lesson I took from the Emerson writing was that we all hold within ourselves the immediate resources to do great things.

By taking action, we are bound to cause distress in others. But it’s this distress that activates the new history we have to create. We should take solace in the choices we make because, even though they will likely cause people to feel troubled or even lead to disruption in what we consider normal, anything that comes truly from within can only lead to peace in the end.

As Emerson wrote:

“Nothing can bring you peace by yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the truth of principles.”

We are born free, and must follow that instinct to its only conclusions.