Emerson, Self-Reliance, and the Sin of Prayer

Henry David Thoreau once said, “Great God, I ask for no meaner pelf 
than that I may not disappoint myself” (“Prayer” 418).  Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson embraces the concept of individual pride in Self-Reliance, the dependence of an individual solely on himself. The author advocates speaking one’s mind freely and avoiding the need to achieve “perfection” as a measurement of self-worth. Beyond the secular realm, Emerson believes the whole nature of religion to be an absence of self-reliance; he regards prayer as a self-centered act, characterized by the reliance upon a higher power to carryout one’s own tasks. This dependence is thus a violation of self-reliance, as it is spurred by outside influences such as conformity to societal expectations through the desire to please God, whether that is through wealth, renown, or other commodities in life. Under the pretense of “pleasing God,” people actually seek to measure up to societal ideals, fueling the emergence of a growing business-like relationship between an individual and God, as opposed to the individual and one’s inner-self. Thus, in Emerson’s view, the only way a man can receive satisfaction from his prayers is if he discovers himself in nature and fashions his own personal divinity, altering the common materialistic form of prayer.

Emerson suggests that prayers increasingly stem from self-interests and materialistic desires, causing people to lose their tie with nature and thus separating them from the ultimate foundation of peace. He exclaims, beginning the questioning of prayers’ intentions, “In what prayers do men allow themselves!” (Emerson 545). He uses exclamation to support the outcry against the exploitation of prayer. The emphasis on “what” initiates the idea that though there is a right form of prayer, people often cede to wrong conduct. Emerson continues his argument, “Prayer that craves a particular commodity,–anything less than all good, — is vicious” (545).  Men pray to receive gifts from God, and subtly demand Him for fulfillment of materialistic desires, trusting that God can just hand over anything they wish. Thus people input insufficient effort to take care of their matters themselves. The author’s terminology of “viciousimplies that prayer, aimed to satisfy specific commodities triggered by selfish motives, strays down a sinful trail which is “less than all good”, or in an Emersonian sense, in disharmony with nature.  This “vicious” attitude also contributes to a slippery slope which causes one to fall deeper and deeper down the all-consuming slope into a state of dependency.

The author contrasts the corrupt prayers of the majority with the justified self-fulfilling prayer of the country workers who have, according to him, found peace. He writes, “He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends” (545). In other words, when one is in compliance with nature, one will observe “prayer” in all his deeds. True reverence is granted when one harmonizes with nature and strips everything to its essential purpose. The farmer spends hours to care for his field, as the rower consumes his days to oar through the waters. They work for their prayers and pray that their work will be the fruitful key. The dedicated duo chants its prayers in this synchronized manner, by valuing each art for its basic vitality. In this fashion, their prayers, unfettered from compliance to God and society, reverberate throughout the natural world. Prayers stem from one’s propensity to hardworking, fruitful work, in contrast to the idle prayers which Emerson condemns. The resulting “cheap” ends which they construct for themselves are of more realistic expectations than those with unrealistically high anticipations, who continuously sit back and wait for perfection to be handed over to them. The workers desire what they worked for, not what they hoped to receive without self-effort. Therefore, the farmer and the rower heap in greater contentment in life, as they are pro-active—the fruit of their own work is their reward.

Not only has prayer become inert but has sinfully been transformed into a trade agreement between man and the divine power to which he pleads. Emerson outlines conclusions about the way which one draws reflections from outside and inside reflections. He writes, “Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous.” Emerson emphasizes “foreign” in the first portion of the line to articulate the idea that the form of prayer practiced now is aroused by outside forces and comes from alien influences rather than the inner self (545). The separation of the natural and supernatural is but a blurred line which people often stumble upon through the act of prayer. People ask a higher power, God, to come forth and bring them “mediatorial and miraculous” materials in attempts to ease and simplify the troubles of their lives, causing the loss of one’s touch with reality. These God-given resources result the de-emphasis of the self and rather the stress on miracles beyond one’s control. Moreover, Emerson uses an allusion to Caratach in Flectcher’s Bonduca to convey the unity of man and his inner divinity. He argues, “Caratach, in Fletcher’s Bonduca, when admonished to inquire the mind of the god Audate, replies, –“His hidden meaning lies in our endeavours; Our valors are our best gods” (545). In the alluded scenario, man asks a heavenly power to complete a task in his favor. However, Emerson believes that one should not need to reply upon a greater divinity to uncover personal revenue. In other words, if a man is one with God, he will not ask God for guidance as if he were a separate being, but rather he will look into himself to find the answer of his concerns.

Ultimately, harmony through prayer is achieved when one looks into his own inner divinity and relies on his own intuition to seek answers to his prayers. Emerson articulates, “[Prayer] is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good” (545). Although a prayer is, by definition, a spiritual communion with God, people often view the conversation as a way to receive advantages from the relationship. Prayer has been transformed into something so diminutive that it is ever so susceptible to vicious treatment and exploitation by egotistical fashions. A prayer is meant to be a soliloquy, a self-reflection, which allows an individual to study himself and find his own individuality. The act of prayer is almost negligible since God has set a path for everyone, allowing Him to “pronounce his works good”, or in other words, allowing God to harmonize nature and man. Therefore, one may lavish himself in his present accomplishments, trusting in himself that all will be good. The author continues to voice, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view” (545).  Here, Emerson regards prayer as a divine act—one that should only be exercised when all other means fail. Thus, prayer is heavenly, and abusing its power strips an individual of his ability to claim his own independence by asking a higher power to carry out his work for him. One should look to the “highest point of view,” self-reflection in nature, when in absolute desperation. Prayer as a form of self-reflection is extolled, and allows one to achieve greater things and improve oneself, toning the difference between active and passive prayer.

Emerson solidifies his position of divine self-reflection by exposing and condemning the widespread nature of prayer and encouraging others to find their inner muse. He exclaims, “But prayer as a means to affect a private end is meanness and theft.  It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg” (545). Often times the scale of faith is mystified, as even one in church on a typical day may “anticipate [the] argument” (536). The crowd of believers already has a set agenda, a list of songs and prayers which they will sing and recite. They concentrate on the rhythmic melody rather than the song of the hushed words. As a result, the very essence of prayer is violated as people lose their insight to the meaning of prayer. A prayer is not meant to be gluttonous, wanting more of what is lacking or insufficiently trivial. One must therefore not be consumed with exceeding his own efforts and creating a wish-list of expectations which he demands of a higher power and skidding down the path to focus all of his energy on the “private end” which ultimately results in “meanness and theft.” This “theft”, the act of taking something that was not earned, corrupts one’s individuality by forcing one to concentrate his powers on changing a future outcome not by individual means, but by begging God to correct his mistakes, to change the course of fate. As a result, man competes with God’s decisions. He challenges the divine power to help him alter the course of his actions, and thus he bathes in disunity with nature, actively opposing the basic natural laws and rightful consciousness. However, Emerson endorses the idea that when one realizes he must live with himself in his own very nature, he will be “one with God”, or in other words, he will become his own divine force. He will learn to carry out his own ambitions without needing to beg God for assistance in circumstances that are under his own control.

Emerson condemns the corruption of prayer driven the individual’s dependence on outer sources to fulfill personal desires. A treaty of coalition between one and nature is the only sure path to understanding the self. Thus, the venture of securing one’s individualism is the only rationale of a practical prayer—the prayer to oneself of liberty, independence, and self-reliance. Even today, people are constrained by religion, social status, and other external factors influencing their lives. However, contradictory to the commonalities of man’s conformity, individuals should shut down the societal world and turn on their inner intuition instead, leading them to greater self-reliance.


Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” 1841. Beginnings to 1865. Ed. Nina Baym. New 
     York: Norton & Co., 2008. 932-550. Print. Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of 
     American Literature.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Prayer.” Poems. Excursions and Poems. Boston: Houghton, 
     1906. 393-419. Print. 

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