Pondering Emerson's individualism

“Insist on yourself; never imitate.” So Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) in 1841. Before now I had read only a sermon of Emerson. But today I bought Barack Obama, The Inaugural Address (Penguin, 2009), a kind of keepsake edition. And combined with it were three addresses by Abraham Lincoln—his two inaugural addresses and The Gettysburg Address—and also Emerson’s Self-Reliance, which has the above quoted statement. It is so Western, so quintessentially Enlightenment. And in one key sense, so fundamentally non-Christian. It militates against mentoring and advocates individualism to the highest degree. Yet, for me, Christianity increasingly is learning a path from others who have gone before. Hebrews 11 is so central to my vision of what it means to be a Christian. Of course, there is a place for doing what God has called you specifically to do—but Emerson’s thought is a plea for dismantling all the authorities and carving out your own philosophical vision.

To me, the whole project is horrifying and I understand why Emerson’s contemporary John Henry Newman (1801-1890) reacted so strongly against it and ended up embracing the authority of Rome. While I do not think that is the answer, his rejection of such rank exaltation of the individual is instinctually correct.