American identity is the way in which America has defined itself through all aspects of life. Although America is viewed as a relatively young country as compared to the rest of the world, its identity has evolved significantly since its existence. The identity of America has been shaped by several elements throughout time. In the text, “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, he focuses on how the concepts of philosophy, society, and politics play roles in the development of America’s identity, all while incorporating these concepts into his very own beliefs about life.
Emerson’s literary work is rooted in the philosophy of individuals relying on and being true to one’s self. This idea begins with the premise that each person is born with unique and individual gifts from God (Emerson 643). In some respects, infants are the closest to being true to one’s self as compared to any other point during one’s life. The reason for this indication is that infants enter the world with only what God gives them, and without any outside influence or pressure to conform (Emerson 643-644). As an example, Emerson states “Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted” (643). He also says, “Infancy conforms to nobody, all conform to it” (643). This establishes the foundation of Emerson’s belief that individuals should listen to their own instincts, thoughts, and what is in their hearts, rather than conforming to the pressures amongst society. The philosophy Emerson believes directly relates back to the American identity in this time period.
Emerson believes that society has a negative effect on people`s inner beliefs. The societal pressures to conform tend to intensify the longer one is in society (Emerson 645). This creates internal tension between believing in one`s self and being unduly influenced by others. In his text, he states, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” (643). As this pressure increases, people may begin to conform more rapidly to the values of what society says is right, rather than what they really believe is true. The more that people conform, the more difficult it is to know who they truly are as individuals. While at the same time, they begin to lose sight of themselves (Emerson 645). In other words, the more dilutive people become to their instincts, the more they lose their individuality. Likewise, Emerson states, “The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character” (645). Emerson makes the point that as people lose their individuality, they also lose that creative genius that is in all of us, thus diminishing their thirst to learn and grow (643). Emerson uses exceptional reasons as to why he believes society diminishes people`s individuality.
Emerson takes note that politics play a role in interfering with individuals staying true to one`s self. The government stands between one`s true self, and can make one lose sight of what is in their heart by trying to focus on everyone. Emerson states, “The Democrats from New Hampshire! The Whigs of Maine! The young patriot feels himself stronger than before by a new thousand of eyes and arms” (658). Emerson is demonstrating how he believes the government attempts to appeal to people, so they will become dependent on the government, rather than believing and depending on themselves. This concept goes completely against Emerson`s views on being self-reliant. He believes people should follow their own voice, not the government’s, nor the church`s. God will give people the voice that they need to do the right things in their life time (Emerson 650). In these examples, he talks strongly about how God gives one their own voice, meaning no one else’s should matter. Emerson provides his audience with remarkable points as to why he believes the government has a negative effect on the individuality of all people.
Emerson captures numerous concepts of American identity within his literary work, “Self-Reliance”. Emerson uses the aspects of philosophy, religion, and politics frequently throughout his text to show the American identity of that particular time period. Some of his elements prove to be timeless and are still relevant today. Even though when they are taken in the literal sense, they could be viewed as extreme. His overall work is focused on solely listening to one`s self and not being influenced by others. The contrary of his position would be that it is important to be open to other points of view, which allows individuals to broaden their perspectives and learn from others. It could be challenging for people to rely solely on their own experiences and readings to learn everything that is possible without borrowing perceptions from others, given how vast the world is and the limited time that is available. Some would argue that as individuals, people cannot possibly know everything and that the way they grow is through listening and collaborating with other people. Again, this is in direct contradiction with Emerson’s perspective that individuals truly grow more by listening to their voice and also, by not allowing their beliefs to be watered down by other people’s views. His text supports this notion that being influenced by others stuns one`s personal growth rather than increasing their individual growth.
Throughout history, American Identity has been shaped by all of the aspects discussed in Emerson’s text. He touches on several key opinions and supports them with a compelling argument as to why he believes his views are true. His overall premise of being more self-reliant is staying true to one’s principles, rather than being susceptible to society. This is a lesson that is still relevant today. Emerson captures the essence of this concept when he states, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles” (658).
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” The American Tradition in Literature. Eds. George B. Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 12th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2009. 642–658.Print.