In reading the works of Emerson, what is most readily apparent to me is that these single essays are continuations of each other. Take for example, “Circles”, “Self-reliance”, and “Experience”. From the first through to the lattermost, the same themes repeatedly surface, often with mirrored poetics and philosophical thrusts.
“The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own. The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.” –Emerson, “Circles”
This passage comes from the essay “Circles”, and meditates on selfness of our thoughts and actions. The imagery and philosophy is wholly loyal to the essay’s title and the rest of the content. The images of circles expanding, as ripples from a water droplet, are echoed throughout the essay and as Emerson tackles the “degrees of idealism” and “conversation” which he states is a “game of circles”, we repeatedly see that he is making an argument about the many interlocking and continuous—if discordant—aspects of our lives.
That being said, if you had not read the essay “Circles”, you could be entirely forgiven for feeling like the above passage came from the essay “Self-reliance”. This essay is famous for proclamations such as “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” And “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” The passage from “Circles” is, if slightly poetically distinct by virtue of it’s circular imagery, philosophically consistent with the content from “Self-reliance”. In both of these, an argument is made about the originality of our thoughts and actions and the worth these things have.
Further in “Self-reliance”, Emerson introduces a new metaphor: that of travel. This is both a literal lesson and a highly symbolic one.
“Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.” –Emerson, “Self-reliance”
It is clear that it fits the slant of the rest of the essay, being a commentary on the way we pursue that which we think will expand our horizons. And in this way, while the poetics and symbols being used have evolved significantly from “Circles”, the connection to that essay still exists. As does a connection to the essay “experience”. From that essay we get the passage:
“Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in. Embark, and the romance quits our vessel, and hangs on every other sail in the horizon. Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it. Men seem to have learned of the horizon the art of perpetual retreating and reference.” –Emerson, “Experience”
In this essay, Emerson has moved onto a more specific discussion of the self—the way that grief is experienced and mentalized. However, in this passage, we can see how his thoughts are still being influenced by the thinking we saw in the prior essays. The poetics of ships and travel are retained from “Self-reliance” and the themes, while now being addressed in the context of grief, are retained all the way from “Circles”.
This is not a radical insight. Nor, do I think that to say that I feel that Emerson’s essay probably make the best sense only in light of each other, is a very radical proposal. That being said, this fact provided me some of the greatest joy when reading these essays.