Man, I must have been asleep in American lit class. I vaguely remember reading Emerson's "Self-Reliance" once before, and I only took away a few sterotypicalÂ impressions. Something about the established churches "dragging a corpose behind them" . . . and a whole lot of blather about being your own man, and "imitation is suicide." Traditional religion Bad, individual Good. Ok, we got Transcendentalism under wraps -- on to Melville!
But when I read Emerson again, after many years in spiritual work, I found a much richer vein than I remembered. I still have some reservations about a completely unqualified "to thine own self be true" . . . for every person who was genuinely searching for their unique voice, I've seen dozens who were merely unread idiots who weren't even schooled enough to know that they were cliche. I suspect that most people read "Self-Reliance" five to ten years too early to be ready for that message of independence.
But the genuinely spiritual philosophy . . . it's not just knee-jerk reactions against orthodoxy. Check this out:
What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? . . .Â In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. For, the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. We first share the life by which things exist, and afterwards see them as appearances in nature, and forget that we have shared their cause. Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom, and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams.
I suspect I read this long ago and just thought it was more of Emerson's extended metaphors. But it's actually a beautiful description of the experience of the Ground of Being. No metaphor at all -- it's as clear a description as you can get of the literal immediate Reality of life.
And Eckhart Tolle's notion of living the NowÂ doesn't seem all that revolutionary, once you read this:
These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.
No wonder Steiner saw in the TranscendentalistsÂ a naturally-arising appreciation of "spiritual science". They really did get it.