The World Exists for You

Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house, a world, and beyond its world, a heaven. Know that the world exists for you; build, therefore, your own world.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

At first glance it would appear that Emerson’s words are an invitation to every egotist, narcissist and megalomaniac to run hog wild. Not that egotists, narcissists and megalomaniacs are much inclined to turn to Emerson for inspiration. And a careful reading of his exhortation will note it is the spirit, not the self, that builds a house and the world beyond. Still, we almost can’t help being carried away by the implications. The world is our oyster, Emerson seems to be saying. So why do we linger at our own doorstep?

There are any number of motivational speakers and self-help gurus who have made it big by exhorting others to reach for the stars. Emerson himself was something of a model for this breed, handicapped though he was by an excess of profundity. The sage of Concord is best taken in small doses to be sure -- a lesson absorbed by many of those who have followed in his footsteps and have prospered by offering nothing but smaller doses. These dollops are usually dressed up as one Big Idea that promises to transcend and transform every meager circumstance of one’s existence. Catch phrases are presented as timeless truths. These are accompanied by a set of methods or techniques that, once mastered, will supposedly enable a practitioner to gain mastery over life. There are testimonials from ordinary folk whose lives have indeed been transformed. But, or course, none outshines the master, whomever he or she may be, who first put these principles into action and whose life now stands as a living testament to their power.

Before getting too carried away, however, we might ask what Emerson himself might have made of all this. He was certainly no defender of orthodoxy, so it is unlikely he would have been offended by a new Big Idea as such. But neither was he inclined to chase after anyone else’s truth; indeed, he was forever urging others to be a light unto themselves, as the Buddha once put it. Emerson’s words were always directed to the individual, never to a movement, even though the Transcendentalists looked to him as their guiding spirit. However, Transcendentalism was more a literary movement than anything else, which means that no one was particularly interested in or even capable of marching to the same drummer.

Emerson’s exhortation is a complete inversion of our usual understanding of how things work. Normally we regard the world as subordinate to heaven, and the house as a shelter from the world. With Emerson, the house is built first, then the world, then heaven. Here it is spirit that builds the house, which saves this passage from pure solipsism. He does not even say my spirit builds the house. It may be mine in a sense but not mine to control. There are no methods or techniques to gain mastery over it. The same can be said for the house, the world, the heavens. They are mine but not mine. This is the essential tradeoff: to gain dominion over the world we must first surrender all claim to it.

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