Religion and Individualism
Religion and Individualism
Different countries have different cultures, traditions and values. They represent the image of the nation, people’s mentality, how they think and behave, and what they strive for and struggle for. With the help of them we judge of what is important in life of a person, of a nation, of a country. America is not an exception. Despite the great number of various ethnic groups that inhabit United States, there are things that unite all the people. Among them are such values like freedom and independence that entirely characterize America. The American founding fathers felt that this concept was of utmost importance when they were deciding what the United States Of America would be and how it would function. In the second paragraph of the “Declaration of Independence” it‘s written: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This is what sets the U.S. apart from all other countries in the world. Other values are beauty, nature, patriotism, optimism, and equality. All of them are described by different American writers, painters, politicians and philosophers. Probably the most important ingredient of Americans’ ideology is their belief in the freedom of the individual called individualism. America’s highest ideal and greatest blessing is freedom and each individual decides to what purpose should it be employed. Everyone should set his own goals for himself. Americans are considered to be rather religious nation. A majority of Americans report that religion plays a very important role in their lives. We can see how various writers, politics and painters talk about religion and express it in their works. In this paper such values as religion and individualism will be analyzed, through the words of Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emily Dickinson, an American poet, was brought up in a prominent family, which raised Dickinson to be a cultured Christian woman who would one day be responsible for a family of her own. Her father attempted to protect her from reading books that might “joggle” her mind, particularly her religious faith. She dressed only in white. In religion white color is the symbol of innocence, purity, holiness, and chastity. She used contemporary popular church hymns, transforming their standard rhythms into free-form hymn meters. Her poetry contains almost all the range of biblical and religious designations. Emily Dickinson’s poem “Faith is a Fine Invention,” can be interpreted spiritually. Dickinson says, ““Faith” is a fine invention- When Gentlemen can see…” In context, Faith is belief that does not rest on logical proof or evidence. In other words, faith is belief without seeing. In Dickinson’s poem, she suggests that humankind only possess faith when the object is seen.
In essence, “faith” is nonexistent. Dickinson continues in the subsequent lines saying, “But Microscopes are prudent- In an Emergency.” This suggests the characteristic of some people who simply cannot accept something without witnessing an in-depth account. For example, “Microscopes” could be a representation of modern day scientists and interpreters who research and develop explanations to discover the truth behind what is believed. Continuing, Dickinson suggests these “Microscopes are prudent” only when things go bad. As with most people today, good judgment is generally a last resort in the midst of adversity. Genuine faith is the only way out of trouble. Nevertheless, humankind is busy trying to offer explanations and theory rather accepting belief without logical evidence. In her poem “This World Is not Conclusion” we see that she didn’t think this world is the end. “A Species stands beyond” – this means that life exists somewhere beyond our world. She was saying that death is not the end of this world. There is another life after death because God says so. This speaks also of the resurrection.
She was saying after we die there is another generation that comes after us, so really this world never ends it keeps on going and going. It’s just like Plato was saying that all the souls transmigrate and only those souls, who reached the catharsis leave the earth and stay in the kingdom of heaven. People try to puzzle out what is this, but the “Faith slips — and laughs, and rallies –Blushes, if any see –Plucks at a twig of Evidence.” Again, you must just believe in God, in a world beyond, and not try to find evidences for it. There are things even the “wise” can’t explain: “Philosophy — don’t know.” Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States, has become a mythic figure in America’s civil religion. He was known for honest, sympathy, and kindness to the victims of the Civil War on both sides. He was private about his beliefs and respected the beliefs of others. Though Lincoln didn’t belong to any church, he is believed to be Christian.
Lincoln read the Bible throughout his life and quoted from it widely. Lincoln was clear in his belief that Christians of the North and South were praying to the same God. Lincoln was self-taught in the ways of both God and humanity. His speeches and conversations always had references on Christianity, there is an unusual depth of the Christian perception. Nowhere was that depth visible than in his Second Inaugural Address: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” He insisted that there were no unbridgeable differences. Both were God fearing people and worked hard.
He went on to describe the strange fact that both sides pray to the same God for a successful resolution and improvement of each of their ideals. Both could not win. It was providence that willed that slavery should be abolished and in his speech, which was almost like a prayer, he hoped to calm both. Lincoln suggested that the cause of the war was the North and the South’s common sin of slavery. He continued, “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, so as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” He uses religious imagery to enlist the belief that God is against slavery. Lincoln placed the outcome of the war into the hands of God to whom all seemed to be praying, saying that whatever God’s desire on these issues would be, that would decide the fate.
He said that if it is God’s will that the war should continue until all funds be expended or until there is a peaceful conclusion, whichever the case, God would decide. He concludes with more religious imagery, specifying the divine right that the Union should attain a victory, and that the goal is to achieve and care about a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations, based on “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American lecturer, essayist and poet. He was seen as a champion of individualism. Emerson was drastic in his conviction that an individual should obey himself and himself alone. The concept of individualism is fully described in the essay “Self-Reliance.” Emerson uses the essay as a vehicle for stressing the importance of the individual’s intellectual and moral development, and for making a defensive statement supporting individualism itself.
His idea is that a man can trust no one but himself; he should not obey the society, but think and act as he feels is right. “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.” Emerson says that man should focus on his inner self for guidance rather than relying on external. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you.” Reliance on and acceptance of the self are the keys to achieving uniqueness by way of trusting one’s own thoughts. Complete trust in a person’s own intuition should exist without influence from outside forces of tradition, religion or government. Emerson talks about the society as about an obstacle on the way of free thoughts. “These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world… The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”
The society doesn’t love truth and art, but meaningless words and conventions. And Emerson says: “I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways,” so he doesn’t want to follow the society and hide the truth. What is natural, what a man feels, what he believes to be true, right and paramount – these are important: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” If he is the only one who thinks differently from the society, that doesn’t mean he is wrong. All people are individuals and they are ruled by different values, opinions, moral codes and beliefs. If a person votes for a candidate just because everybody does, Emerson can’t really understand what this person presents of himself under this mask: “My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady.” Later he says: “Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”
Do what you want to do, what you feel you should do, but not what majority dictates you. Otherwise you’re not living a life; you’re just a puppet in the hands of the society, a part of indifferent mass. People are afraid to be misunderstood. Therefore it would be better and easier to agree with the others and accept social standards than to try to go against them and to change something. When we allow ourselves to be dictated to by another, sooner or later those people realize they have us wrapped around their finger, and serious problems could arise. Emerson tries to assure them that’s not so bad; many famous figures were misunderstood. “Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now.” Also when you accept the thing you don’t believe in, you oppose yourself, which is the worst treachery you can do, according to Emerson. Emerson also says that everything comes from the main source.
The universe is right, if we free ourselves, make our souls clear, we’ll understand the universe. “The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.” Intuition is the basic wisdom, the mystical senses, when you say you just know it, and you feel it. Emerson always thought that feelings are the best proofs and arguments for everything. Repeatedly throughout “Self-Reliance” Emerson returns to these ideas and themes to support his point that fortune and peace is attainable only through reliance on and trust in one’s self. People should believe in themselves, despite what others may say or think, not be afraid of thinking differently, not lose their identity. Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, critic, and philosopher. He is best known for his essay “Civil Disobedience,” an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state. One of the most important themes in the work of Thoreau is the idea of individualism.
Thoreau rejects the view that a person must sacrifice or isolate his values out of loyalty to her government. Thoreau expresses his anti-conformity and individualism in pursuit of a political and ethical cause in spite of opinion of the majority. “Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?- in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” This means that first of all a person must be faithful to his opinions and views and do what he thinks and feels is right, he can and must disagree with the government if he thinks it’s beyond his standards of truth. His idea is that everybody is a “man first and a subject afterwards.”
Everybody has his own feelings upon this or that questions, people are different and they have different beliefs and points of views. Nobody and nothing can make one change his thoughts. Thoreau distinguishes 3 types of people: “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs.
Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.” Here he talks about people who behave just the way they are told, they even don’t ponder over their attitude to the things they are doing. Thoreau compares them with animals, that have no the ability of thinking, they just do what they are made to do. “Others- as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders- serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.” These people have the ability of thinking, they know what is right and what is wrong, but in spite of it they still do things that are profitable for them. They live for themselves and try to gain as much as possible. “A very few- as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men- serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.
A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay,” and “stop a hole to keep the wind away,” but leave that office to his dust at least.” These are the individuals who are valued for being a man, for not just having the ability of thinking, but thinking differently. They are not afraid to opposite the others and to divulge their thoughts. That’s mainly why these people are not accepted by the majority. He writes that government’s authority is “impure.” Thoreau exhorts to true respect for the individual. “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.” He says that he dreams of a State that respects the individual, a State that would not mind if a few individuals even chose to live independent of it altogether. This kind of State would prepare the way for an even more “perfect and glorious State.”
Returning to religion we can notice that mostly Americans are religious people. Though the government doesn’t dictate any kind of religion to its citizens, people choose to be faithful. Each of them believes in his own God, and each of them feels the faith in his own way. Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln were both Christians, both of them read Bible, and the works of both sound like a prayer. But what separates them is that Dickinson’s main idea was to believe in God without any proofs. One should not try to find evidence for the existence of God, he should just believe. And Lincoln’s idea was that North and South pray to the same God and that all people are equal in front of God. Also he believed that everything in the world, and the Civil War is not an exception, happens because of God willing.
Only the Almighty can decide the fate of people, and the conclusion of the war including. Passing on to the second value of this work, it’s necessary to mention that individualism is one of the most important and inalienable elements for each American. Emerson and Thoreau were ardent supporters of individualism. They hated the society; they are against the majority and against those people who obey. They both think that what a person thinks and feels is right, and not what they are forced to think and believe. Emerson also talks about the human intuition, which is according to him the primary wisdom; you know something is right just because you feel it. Thoreau by-turn talks about 3 types of people, and elevates the people who are able to think differently and to act differently, without being afraid not to be accepted by the society. Thoreau also creates in his dreams a new State, where an individual would be respected.
Subject: Henry David Thoreau,
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 12 October 2016
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