What is man anyhow? What am I? What are you? asks Whitman. Who we are, what our purpose is and what the meaning of life is are all mysteries that man has tried to solve from his earliest history. Whitman and Emerson explore these ideas in their works, Song of Myself and Self Reliance. Whitman, an American poet, and Emerson, an American philosopher, take different approaches in their search for self-discovery, yet within their solutions, many parallels can be found.
Emersons message is one of non-conformity and individuality. He views every man as unique within, and feels society, exterior elements and tradition are mans downfall. He urges us to be a product of ourselves, to live in the present, rather than measure our worth against mans past accomplishments or live by old ideas.
There is contrast in Whitmans view, which embraces all society, and that which surrounds him. He views all mankind and nature as intertwined in the past, present and future in one perpetual cycle of life and death. He speaks of the sameness of man and sees himself in everyone, while Emerson stresses each man as different and apart from one another.
Yet in their description of mans innermost thought they share a nearly identical ideal. Emerson states that genius is to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men so agrees Whitman, These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me.
Also complimenting each other are their ideas of great men throughout history. Emerson says, No greater men are than ever were, a singular equality may be observed between the great men of the first and last years while Whitman proclaims Births have brought us richness and varietyI do not call one greater and one smaller, That which fills its period and place is equal to any. However, while Emerson feels that what great men have in common is the courage to listen to their own individuality and to be the first to express an idea, Whitman sees all men as contributing greatness to one another.
These scholars, in their quest for excellence both revert back to simplicity. In both works children, and child-like thought are exalted. Emerson is awes at the freedom of a child, seeing it as god-like independence. He says a child conforms to no one, but rather all conform to the child. Whitman speaks of the wonder of a child contemplating what grass is.
Both view the simplicity found in nature as also divine and perfect. In two very similar quotes, Emerson describes, “The roses under my window make no reference to former rosesthey exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence and Whitman goes on, the morning glory outside my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.
The two express similar ideas about God- who or what he is, and where he can be found. Emerson speaks of mans nature, or natural law: No law is sacred than that of my own nature. God is found in all nature- we are one with nature and God. This quote nearly encompasses Whitmans own ideas of God and nature. Both men agree God is found within; God is in your self.
From Whitman celebration of life to Emersons wisdom that greatness comes from within, both works are a superior exploration of self from two men who have reached the highest level of self-actualization.
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance”