In "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson postulates that humans are mere receptors of what he calls “truth”:
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 ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams, (141).
This reception of truth is conveyed through “involuntary perceptions [to which] a perfect faith is due,” (142). This perception is different for every person, but may not be discredited, for “perception is not whimsical, but fatal… it is as much a fact as the sun,” (142). The natural way in which different individuals perceive situations implies that there are many versions of reality and truth.
Truth is subjective, Emerson states, different for every person. One man’s truth is not necessarily the truth of every man, but of particular significance to the singular person. However, the problem with ascribing the word “truth” to every man’s whim in every place in the world is that truth can no longer be defined. Truth instead becomes a vast well of nothingness in which both the highest and lowest levels of thinkers can toss in their two cents. The meaning of the word itself is so convoluted, that one wonders why we still use the word at all. This is again reiterated in “Self-Reliance”: “Good and bad are but names readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it,” (Emerson 135). However, Emerson does not let the fallibility of language diminish the meaning of truth, but instead aspires to show every individual that their version of truth is not “wrong” because it does not coincide with the socially-accepted norm.
Because higher thinking and logic cause the human mind to immediately categorize events, phenomena, and theories into a way that fits social hierarchy and other distinctions, it is against rational thought and even human nature to embrace the Emersonian idea of truth. This may be why “we are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other,” (Emerson 146). It is too difficult for humans to rationalize the idea that the once solid and steadfast notion of “truth” is merely a construct of the person who claims it to be so. Our inability to understand “truth” as a myriad of meanings and contexts causes most to disregard this view and to revert to the classic version of truth as “right” or “good.”
Emerson continues to baffle the human mind by claiming that contradiction, hypocrisy and constant inconsistency can be ignored in the pursuit of truth:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines… Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, thou it contradict every thing you say to-day… Is it so bad then to be misunderstood?... To be great is to be misunderstood, (138).
By ignoring inconsistency, or rather, embracing inconsistency, Emerson hopes that people will continue to seek for truth without being constrained by the hypocrisy and contradiction that the modern, logical mind condemns. This practice is obviously problematic, in that if a man proclaims a “truth” one day and disavows it the next, his original “truth” and all other proclamations are thereby discredited. Emerson’s search for truth unabashedly ignores the basic logic that governs and defines human thought, thus ensuring that any proclamation made in such inconsistency will most certainly be ignored and widely regarded as folly. Our logical faculties impede our search for “truth”: “In these instances the intellectual gifts do not make the impression of virtue, but almost of vice; and we feel that a man’s talents stand in the way of his advancement in truth,” (246.)
It is therefore unsurprising to read the last lines of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” as contradictory as it is to his statement above about the necessity of contradiction: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles,” (153). The contradiction in this being that principles that cannot be explained or easily defined would not be able to “triumph” in a world where human understanding is still ruled by logic. Because the principles do not have a solid definition on which they are based, they will be instantly disregarded in favor of more steadfast morals.
While the linear world in which we live calls for an absolute definition of truth, Emerson directs every individual to search for the truth themselves, even if they must “contradict every-thing,” (138). Perhaps this incredible quest for the impossible will bring the peace that comes to the individual that “speak[s] the rude truth in all ways” (135) and thereby attains a heightened sense of self.