Experience | Study Guide

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Experience | Main Ideas


The Lords of Life

Human experience is governed by a variety of abstract concepts and human tendencies that Emerson refers to in the opening poem and at the end of the essay as "the lords of life." He lists them as Illusion, Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, and Subjectiveness. These factors are mostly unavoidable and frequently limit people's ability to gain wisdom, be creative, and reach their full potential as human beings.

Focus on the Individual

All of Emerson's explorations of the human tendencies affecting our experience are made from the perspective of the individual. Many of these forces act to separate people from each other and make it difficult to understand the experiences of others. A person's existence as a subjective individual means that by nature it is impossible for them to escape their own distorted perceptions and see the world as it really is.

The Influence of God

Emerson's concept of God is of an unseen First Cause that sometimes inspires or teaches us. He views conventional descriptions of God such as those of organized religion as too narrow. For Emerson the particular beliefs people hold about God are less important than the universal impulse to believe which has always existed in human beings. In spite of people's limitations and failings, this divine force is still able to connect to them and help them improve themselves.

How People Can Improve Themselves

Most of the factors limiting people can not be changed, but Emerson offers practical advice for countering some of them. He suggests that people should seek out a variety of other people, ideas, and experiences to get the full symmetry of life because God or inspiration will speak through different things at different times. They should not worry too much about planning a perfect future but instead make the most of each moment. They should keep their expectations simple and stay in the middle between abstract thought and physical sensation. They should look for life's secrets not in exotic places but in the common experiences all around them. Emerson advises people above all to trust themselves and be patient, because it takes time to accomplish anything worthwhile.

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