The piece we were assigned to was a part of an essay Emerson did on self-reliance
He starts out by explaining that whether or not we act as individuals all depends on asking ourselves how much self-trust we have, or how much confidence we have in ourselves. When you really think about it, individuality is honestly not something we desire to subject ourselves to, because being an individual can lead to other people not accepting you, hating you, or accusing you of being self-righteous, disrespectful, a rebel, a freak, and so on. So why would anyone want to be an individual if it brings on all of that? Emerson believes that if youre even the least bit independent, then theres beauty, even in ordinary, commonplace things Thats because letting yourself be an individual is the essence of genius, goodness, and life force that time, space, nature, our souls, EVERTHING all has in common.
He goes on describing the things that make you YOU, like your intuition and instinct, and how we betray our own principles to go along with what others say and act, because we have no confidence in ourselves, and therefore, no self-reliance.
I think a large part of what hes talking about is about religion. When we think of truth of the soul and virtue and life, it all comes down to what you see as the truth, which is faith, and faith is religion. Hes saying that we dont have enough self-reliance when it comes to religion. In other words, we follow the Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish or other path like sheep, our minds are like sponges that soak up so much of what views of what is right, according to society. He means that we often surrender to the things that are being shoved down our throats, so we have no room to trust ourselves. He says we lie in the lap of extreme intelligence and truth, but we deny ourselves of that because we have no self-reliance.
This doesnt just apply to religion… theres also being an individual when it comes to your education, the way you live your life and basically everything you do. People that arent individuals surrender to laws and names and large groups of people and dead institutions in order to fit in with whats popular, or get money, or simply because were too intimidated to stand up for what we really feel is right. Basically, youre a sell-out, and as long as you stay a sell-out, well always feel lonely in our souls, unfulfilled, and feel totally separate from one another, because we suppress whats really inside us.
Theres a quote by Emerson that brings it all down perfectly. He says that mans failure to see light is caused by standing in his own shadow.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self Reliance. Adventures in American Literature: Pegasus Edition. Ed. Bernard Brodsky. Orlando: Harcourt, 1989. 221