Confessions and Self-Reliance

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All humanity struggles to answer the question: what is the purpose of life? And how does one achieve this purpose? Saint Augustine of Hippo, a prominent thinker of his time, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, an esteemed poet, both yearned to answer these questions. Using their life experiences, both men composed books with their own answers to these queries hoping to impart clarity to their readers. Confessions, written by Saint Augustine, is a biography from infanthood to adulthood. In it, he describes the many difficulties he had to face before he was able to uncover what the purpose of life was. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Self-Reliance, an essay about discovering one's own individuality and how doing that helps one achieve their purpose. On examining Confessions and Self-Reliance, it is revealed how Saint Augustine and Ralph Waldo Emerson perceive the purpose of life to be and how they believe it can be achieved.

        In Self-Reliance, Emerson proposes that the purpose of life is to be completely individualistic and to attain greatness from one's own self, without relying on society to dictate one's life.  According to Emerson, Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater (Self-Reliance 21).  By saying this, Emerson is implying that to rely on society is to give up one's own freedom and individuality. He continues further by stating, The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs (Self-Reliance 21). Here, Emerson claims that society promotes conformity and devalues creativity and innovations. He urges readers to not conform to the ways of this word, but to accept their own identity and to further pursue it.

        One way a person might pursue their identity in order to achieve the purpose of life is by staying true to his own self. Emerson states that, There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for the better, for worse. (Self-Reliance 20). A key phrase used in this statement is imitation is suicide. Emerson uses this language to convey to his readers that copying the lifestyle or ways of another person can result in the death or suicide of their own character. In addition, Emerson also mentions that to stay true to one's own self, one must return back to their 'roots' or in other words,  to their youth. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being (Self-Reliance 20). The phrase, confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age suggests Emerson believed that staying true to one's self requires re-attaining the 'boldness of youth'.  He also specifically mentions that great men do this which indicates to the readers that in order to become great, one must become like youth. 

Emerson also asks readers to not be ashamed of their thoughts and feelings but to be unapologetic of who they are. He expresses this by saying, What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it (Self-Reliance 23). Emerson clearly states that one must focus on what he thinks is the best for his life instead of worrying about what others say and think about one's decisions. He also says that this rule determines the difference between being great and being average. Emerson adds, It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude (Self-Reliance 23). Here, Emerson claims that it is easy to follow what society says when one is living in society. He also mentions that it is easy to follow one's own opinion when no one else is there swaying you and when you are in solitude. However, Emerson states that the greatest test that proves how much one truly trusts oneself is when one is living in society and yet one is able to maintain their thoughts without being influenced. Emerson claims that in following these rules one will achieve their purpose in life by becoming individualistic and by becoming 'great among men'.

Saint Augustine however proposes that the purpose of life is to seek God and his wisdom, and, to humble one's self in reverence to God. Unlike Emerson, who believes that one should seek his identity, Augustine believes that one must spend their life pursuing after God and His wisdom. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart. I began to rise up to return to you (Confessions 39). Here Augustine explains that in his life, he experienced a passion and desire to seek after the immortality of wisdom and to return to God. Because of this experience in his life, Augustine appeals to his readers to have that same passion and desire to go after that same wisdom.

Augustine also puts heavy emphasis on being humble before God and showing reverence before Him.  Augustine states, Nevertheless allow me to speak before your mercy, though I am but dust and ashes (Gen. 18:27). Allow me to speak: for I am addressing your mercy, not a man who would laugh at me. Perhaps even you deride me (cf. Ps. 2:4), but you will turn and have mercy on me (Jer. 12:15) (Confessions 6). In this statement, Augustine compares himself to be dust and ashes. He brings himself down to the lowest of lows, and begs the Lord to allow him to speak in His presence. Augustine further emphasizes this by saying, Who am I and what am I? What was not evil in my deeds or, if not deeds, in my words or, if not words, in my intention? But you, Lord 'are good and merciful' (Ps.102:8). Your right hand had regard to the depths of my dead condition, and from the bottom of my heart had drawn out a trough of corruption (Confessions 155). In his opening, Augustine questions himself, asking What was not evil in my deeds or, if not deeds, in my words or, if not words, in my intention? From this, the readers understand that Augustine continuously humbles himself because he is burdened by all the wrongs he has committed.  He feels unworthy before God and is thanking and praising Him for being good and merciful. In contrast to Augustine's humbleness and desire to pursue God, Emerson believes in being 'great among men' by becoming fully individualistic and by seeking one's own self.

Augustine also provides explanations as to how one might achieve the wisdom that is from God. Augustine suggests that in order to seek after God and His wisdom and to be humble before Him, one must move from the darkness to the light. Surely many return to you from a deeper hell of blindness than Victorinus. They approach and are illuminated as they receive light. Those who receive it obtain from you 'power to become your sons' (John 1:9, 12) (Confessions 138). Here Augustine explains that all who seek after God first came from a place that is a deeper hell of blindness than Victorinus, meaning that they came from not knowing anything about God and His wisdom. He then goes on saying, they approach and are illuminated as they receive light, meaning that as they start to pursue God, they receive light or, are illuminated as they receive wisdom that comes from pursuing God. In addition, Augustine also mentions, For a long time past I have been burning to meditate in your law (Ps. 38:4) and confess to you what I know of it and what lies beyond my powers-the first elements granted by your illumination and the remaining areas of darkness in my understanding-until weakness is swallowed up by strength (Confessions 221-222). In saying this, Augustine is implying that he has already received wisdom from God and that he is waiting for even more so that he can rid himself fully of his old ways.

Ridding one's self of his old ways was something Augustine struggled with. He states,     The new will which was beginning to be within me a will to serve you freely and to enjoy you, God, the only sure source of pleasure, was not yet strong enough to conquer my older will, which had the strength of old habit. So my two wills, one old, the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual, were in conflict with one another, and their discord robbed my soul of all concentration (Confessions 140). Here, Augustine explains the conflict between his old will and his new will. His new will was the will that wanted to pursue after God and seek Him, but his old will was the will that wanted to pursue the earthly treasures. However, his new will was not strong enough to overcome the old will. Augustine urges his readers to push the new will forward by pursuing God and to disband the old will by not giving in to it.

After examining Self-Reliance and Confessions by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Saint Augustine, it is clear that both men had different point of views on what the purpose of life is, and how one might go about in order to achieve it. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that the purpose of life is to be fully individualistic and to become 'great among men'. However, Saint Augustine believed that the purpose of life is to pursue after God and His wisdom and to be humble in reverence before Him. It is up to every person to determine what they believe the purpose of life is; whether it is to be self-reliant, or whether it is to pursue after Higher Deity.

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Confessions and Self-Reliance. (2019, Dec 31). Retrieved March 3, 2024 , from

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