Nature and Function of Humanism in Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Miguel de Unamuno

In this essay I will explicate what Ralph Waldo Emerson and Miguel de Unamuno independently understand to be the nature and function of humanism. American philosopher, essayist and poet of the early Modern period, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay titled “Self -Reliance” in 1841. In his essay, Emerson focuses on thinking for yourself as a human and not being a conformist in a society that attempts to force conformonism on its people. Emerson’s intention was to inform his audience to view his bond with nature and God. Emerson’s beliefs had a great impact on American culture, and he influenced individuals to view life in a different perspective, thinking for yourself and making decisions based on your personal desires. Miguel de Unamuno was a Spanish essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and philosopher. In his book “Tragic Sense of life,” Unamuno focuses on the critical task of spiritual anxiety and the significance it has on people to live their life sufficiently and completely. Unamuno’s desire is to sustain one’s personal sincerity by utilizing social conformity, fanaticism, and hypocrisyShould quotes be here?. Both philosophers wanted people to be knowledgeable about the power and control they have over themselves and how they should act accordingly by living their best lives.

Emerson began his essay by presenting a scenario about some great works of art. He believes the displayed artists’ works are portraits of their own natural feelings and thoughts. From this perception, he also believes that people should learn to follow their own instincts. He encourages his audience to trust their own instincts as well. The most important realization any individual can have is trusting themselves above all others. Emerson believes to be genius, you must believe in your own thoughts and to think what you believe is true for all(1). By becoming a genius, he suggests it will lead you to your independence and self-satisfaction. He believes that relying on others instead of using your own understanding is cowardly. He also believes that you should voice your latent conviction as if it is the general sense of all, instead of saying what others think(2). As a human in the world we attempt to please others and often times we sacrifice our personal desires for the sake of other people’s opinions. We can explain this notion, in short, as half expressing ourselves in fear of the opinion of others. Consider a 5 year old child for example; a 5 year old child acts on desires and doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks. Emerson feels that we should all turn back to that state of mind where we don’t care about what other people think. It shouldn’t matter what people think, for a great person is often misunderstood. Don’t think that it is a bad thing to be misunderstood. Sometimes you have an original thought that others simply, may not understand. He says that a great man is a man who proceeds to be himself no matter the environment around him(fir). Great men have always trusted themselves and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age. He credits Moses, Plato, and Milton because they ignored books and traditions and expressed themselves freely.

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Emerson wants us to think for ourselves and disregard no thoughts. He thinks that a human should be able to notice the thoughts in his mind and his thoughts should be cherished. When talking about these thoughts, he describes them as a gleam of light (3). That gleam of light should not go unnoticed for it is a gleam that only you know about, it is your original thoughts. Anyone who truly wants to be themself must be a nonconformist Emerson believes to be a man you should be a nonconformist because if everyone was the same and followed the same rules there would be no change. We as humans should have self reliance as would a nonconformist. By self reliance, which is also the title of his essay means to depend on yourself and your own ideas. Your ideas are original and sacred and you should treat them as so. He thinks we are moved by works of a genius because they are often thoughts that we had before but they were disregarded. We as humans do this pretty often -it’s like second nature. Say you are sitting in your room on your bed and you had this thought about a new strategy that you could use for community outreach and you let it go without writing it down or giving it any other thought. The very next outreach meeting -instead of you proposing the strategy- you thought about someone else who proposed the same thing you were thinking that night in bed. You now have to accept it, and you look at them as if they are genius when you had the same thought, but you didn’t put it to use. This is a prime example of how we as humans disregard our thoughts and then accept them from someone else. Emerson feels that we should treat all of our thoughts sacred, for the mere fact that the thought could make a change in the world. If we feel as if a thought is important we should treat it as it is important no matter the opinions of others.

Emerson claims that acquiescing to public opinion wastes a person’s life. These are opinions from people who most likely don’t know you personally and you dedicate your life to attempting to please them. The time spent attempting to get a good look or an “ok” from the community saps the energy needed in the vital act of creation and distracts us from making any unique contribution to society. Society today can ruin you if you let it. Emerson compares society to joint stock company, in which the price of investment is one’s manhood or independence. It attempts to force conformity on all people. Emerson points out two enemies of the independent thinker: society’s disapproval ,as we have discussed, and one’s own sense of consistency. Trying to remain consistent with past actions and beliefs can hinder one from full expression of an individual’s nature. Having the mistaken idea that consistency is a virtue can prevent trust in oneself. Emerson wonders why people hold onto old beliefs or positions simply because they have taken these positions in the past. This form of action can keep humans away from actually living life. He wants us to follow our own beliefs and desires. It is easy to live in the world with the world’s opinion affecting every decision you make, but a great man will remain independent from solitude at all times.Emerson hopes that people will finally come to understand how ridiculous consistency and conformity are.

In the book, Tragic Sense of Life Unamuno clearly points out the type of man he is discussing. He says that it is the man of flesh and bone, the one who is the subject and the supreme object of philosophy(16). The man who lives life, eats, drinks, and can be seen. He proposes that people say man is said to be a reasoning animal(17). He wonders why he is not described as an affecting, because the difference between us, man, and other animals is feeling rather than reason. Personally, I have seen animals reason on what not to do at a certain moment. Take a cat for example, it knows what battles to choose. If it sees a dog, the cat will most likely run out of fear of knowing dogs and cats don’t get along. From this we can see that the cat has reasoned about his next action when he noticed the dog. Unamuno believes that a man is a affective animal rather than a rational one.

First Unamuno turns to Immanuel Kant, a professor of philosophy at Konigsberg, and shows that while Kant was able to reduce all the traditional proofs of the existence of God in his book Critique of Pure Reason. However, in his book Critique of Practical Reason he does a somersault using the suggestion of the categorical imperative, the immortality of the soul. From that he arrives at the conclusion that the existence of God is come from the immortality of the soul.

In this book, Unamuno shows that he believes to be a man is to be something concrete, unitary, and substantive. The principles of unity and continuity regulates who the man is and who the man is not. Unitary is pertaining to, characterized by or aiming towards the unity or the whole. The principle of unity helps our bodies, actions and intentions to function properly. Without having the principle of unity, we would be insanely strange. For instance, it would be unusual for one foot to go forward and the other one backward. According to Unamuno, a man is more of a man if he takes on unitary actions. In life, we have different purposes that we may follow. Some may just have one, but the ultimate goal is for people to follow their passion and purpose. Continuity is being continuous and connected as a whole. If someone has done a person wrong, they may continue to dwell on that situation, and they will not get over it unless they actually find the strength to let it go. Nonetheless, when someone is reminiscing about a phenomenal time period in their life, they would possibly want to continue in that moment of their life. A man can be changed incredibly, only if he is ready to change and not to continue his lifestyle. Unity and continuity can benefit a person, but only if they choose it that way because no one can force them.

Unamuno believes that we live in memory and by memory, as a man derives himself by reflecting on his past. Everything that we do as humans, is a speculation on our past on what should or could have been done. Also, he asserts that memory is the basis of individual personality, just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality. We as humans should want the memories we make to endure and last so that they may convert to hope. We want to have made the memories of our past and build on it to make our future.

Unamuno believes that personal immortality is the starting point for all philosophy and a problem for all humans, and that everyone longs for their immortality. He asserts that anyone who says they don’t are merely deceiving themselves, for everyone seeks it. The creation of immortality was deemed by God to guide mankind to seek everlasting life. God has the authority of Heaven and Earth and He is like a consciousness to the universe. There are some with teleological feelings which think of the final cause or purpose in nature, but this comes from within the conscious. If consciousness was to happen in a blink of an eye between two eternities, then there would be nothing worse than the continuation of life.

Unamuno gives two points about knowledge. One being, that knowledge is utilized within the service of the need of life and primarily within the service of the instinct of personal preservation. He believes that this is a necessity for us as humans to live, for without certain knowledge we would die. He asserts that it is an aftereffect of the essence of being which comes in the desire for immortality. The other point being, superfluous knowledge, knowledge that may in its turn come to create a new necessity. For example we can say, curiosity. Curiosity only comes operative after the the necessity of knowing for the sake of living is completed. The fact of the matter is that curiosity came from the necessity of knowing in order to live. Knowledge is used in the service of necessity of life and mainly service of the instinct personal survival. Man uses the basic five senses for the sake of living. Parasite, whom live in the intestines of some animals in the nutrive juices that are already prepared for them, don’t have or require to use the five senses that humans do. They just adhere to the animal for the seeing and hearing world is nonexistent to them. This example shows us how knowledge

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Nature and Function of Humanism in Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Miguel de Unamuno. (2021, Oct 22). Retrieved from