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Analysis of the Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Views on Perfectibility

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In his analysis of the adolescent United States, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville suggests that the egalitarian culture of America radically transforms the idea of perfection. “The idea of perfectibility is therefore as old as the world; equality did not give birth to it, but gives it a new character”. In other words, the vision of perfectibility is not founded in tandem with the nation, but it is rediscovered and reimagined in the light of a new world.

The great “Seer” of this vision in America is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson proposes that people are only complete when they retreat into nature. Nature unifies. It shows the ideal self. “Xenophanes complained in his old age, that, look where he would, all things hastened back to Unity…. A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole”. For Emerson, unity is perfection, and it must be discovered, not built. Perfectibility is never far from reach. In order to obtain it, people only have to let go of the restrictions society and history impose on them. “As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws at his need inexhaustible power”.

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Emerson’s perfection is a passive, interior process. Several times, he harkens back to the Christian idea that children have more access to truth because of their innocence. The ideal person, the “Aboriginal Self” trusts themselves. “Insist on yourself,” Emerson writes. The use of the word “aboriginal” is intentional, connoting the American Indians that preceded the European Americans. “What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American…. and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the two men and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength”. No wealth or material resources are necessary for perfection. If anything, they make it more difficult. De Tocqueville writes, “But for equality, they have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion; they want equality in freedom, and, if they cannot get it, they still want it in slavery”.

Perfectibility, for Emerson, implies not just self-realization, but in a distinctly American way, equality. The unity and universality he emphasizes are strongly connected to equality. If they are a prerequisite for perfection, then so is equality. “Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate…. He is entitled to the world by his constitution”. Emerson uses aristocratic language, dowry and estate, to describe the birthright of all people, nature. This birthright comes from man’s “constitution.” Emerson connects the written document to man’s essence. It is self-evident, written in the soul, as the Constitution is written in paper. His American identity ripples through his beliefs on perfectibility. Emerson’s transcendentalism comes with a strong distaste for elitism. “How does Nature deify us with a few and cheap elements! Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous”. Nature is accessible to all. Emerson’s belief in universality extends to society. “You must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all…. In the divided or social state these functions are parceled out to individuals…. The Fable implies that the individual, to possess himself must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers”.

Emerson wants to remind people of their divinity. His idealism calls for empowerment, a freedom from the restrictions of the past, an equitable perfection. He simultaneously calls for the new, “An original relation to the universe”, and a return to a time without the corruption of history. He wants to both be original and return to the original. This is only possible if his vision of perfectibility is timeless. “The sea, the mountain-ridge, Niagara, and every flower-bed pre-exist, or super-exist”. Instead of progress, he calls for restoration of the infinite, nature. According to an anonymous poet that influenced Emerson, “Genius is the activity which repairs the decays of things”. Later, Emerson himself says, “But nature has a higher end, in the production of new individuals, than security, namely ascension, or the passage of souls into higher forms”. For Emerson, perfectibility means transcendence, stripping oneself of history and all restrictions so they can see what is real and timeless. “I want very much to put faith in human perfectibility; but until men should have changed in nature and have been completely transformed, I shall refuse to believe in the longevity of a government whose task is to hold together forty diverse peoples spread over an area equal to half of Europe,” says de Tocqueville. Emerson, like Tocqueville, believes that people must change their nature, or embrace their true nature, to improve the world. Individuals must transcend division and embrace harmony. Unlike de Tocqueville, he sees perfection not only as attainable, but readily available, there for the taking. Go to nature. “Go into solitude”. Open your eyes.

In his essay “Man the Reformer,” Emerson writes: “Love would put a new face on this weary old world in which we dwell as pagans and enemies too long, and it would warm the heart to see how fast the vain diplomacy of statesman, the impotence of armies, and navies, and lines of defence, would be superseded by this unarmed child. Love will creep where it cannot go, will accomplish that by imperceptible methods, being its own lever, fulcrum, and power, which force could never achieve”. Emerson personifies love as a child, suggesting that perfection is humanity’s natural state. Returning doesn’t require force, in fact the child is unarmed. Again, people simply have to go to nature. Emerson is not just optimistic about achieving an “original relationship with the universe,” he expects it. “One day all men will be lovers; and every calamity will be dissolved in the universal sunshine”. For the United States, he predicts a similar rejuvenation. “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close… Who can doubt that poetry will revive and lead in a new age”.

America’s new relationship to the universe will transform the people, it will create unity, it will allow for perfection. Emerson’s new age, his vision of perfectibility, is distinctly American and, by extension, egalitarian, open to all. Latent in the call for unity is a reaffirmation of the principle that “all men are created equal.” He believed that, as a nation, Americans must rediscover their soul. Rather than progress, he wanted restoration. Rather than building a future, he wanted to discover it. Forget the restrictions of the Old World, history, conformity, elitism, and find the truth firsthand, in nature. “Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate.” Emerson’s radical commitment to the rights of all people, a right to the world itself, informs his beliefs, and envelops his philosophy that is nature, including humanity, is perfect, and should be viewed as if for the first time.

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