10/19/2012 04:50 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Emerson and the Dream of America

As we approach this crucial election, I want to reflect for a moment on the influence of one of our founding thinkers on the issues before the American electorate. Ralph Waldo Emerson is widely known for his concept of self-reliance. For many years, the idea of self-reliance has been the Great American Idea, and for many it meant to "do your own thing," to have the freedom and independence to pursue whatever you wanted in this great country where anyone could achieve his or her personal dream of success and happiness.

But like any superficial reading of a great text, "Self-Reliance" never meant to be a license to pursue our dreams at the expense of others or to accept what some conceived to be Darwin's evolutionary notion of "the survival of the fittest." Emerson has even been mistakenly connected to the egocentric assertions of Ayn Rand, whose ideas have lately been resurrected by the American right wing.

We are all familiar with the dangers of simple-mindedness and superficial understanding, and Emerson himself said that Americans had an unfortunate tendency toward superficiality, and he spent his lifetime and creative energy in the selfless effort to correct that fault in our character.

In my latest book on the thought of this great thinker, Emerson and the Dream of America, I have continued what I believe was Emerson's goal of providing a mature and truthful vision for the future of America. The true meaning of self-reliance is the spiritual principle of self-trust, the realization that we possess within our nature the strength and capacity for finding our true path in life and even for discovering the very ground of our being. And what is true for us as individuals is also true for the nation.

Chapter four of Emerson and the Dream of America is titled "The New Self-Reliance," and I said in part, I titled this chapter "The New Self-Reliance" because it is clear now that since Emerson's first assertions of this theme 140 years ago, we may have assimilated personally and culturally some of the language and substance of his intention, but we have yet to manifest his words in matters of national character. To some extent some of the spiritual and self-development movements have absorbed this material and have formulated and reformulated its essence and principles into systems of enlightenment and self-recovery. What remains is the actual work and its realization to a larger sphere.

Unfortunately, this narrower development has also evolved into the presence of self-serving gurus merchandizing what can never be sold or merchandized. Emerson himself has been reduced to a purveyor of slogans and aphorisms empty of meaning outside their context. And yet there remains a powerful essence coming from the man's words that has been absorbed and may now being put to work in the culture.

What presents itself in this election is a clear choice between a true understanding of Emerson's vision and a false one based on a superficial understanding of it. Emerson wrote of an America with an understanding of achieving the dream of equality and justice as the hallmark of spiritual maturity and not an America bent on the selfish principle of "every man for himself." If America was the land of opportunity, as the cliche has always been expressed, the dream was meant for every citizen, with a level playing field which supported a genuine understanding of equality of opportunity, not only before the law but also in the minds and hearts of all Americans.

That we are still a great distance from that goal makes it doubly important that we not slide back now into the darkness of greed and selfish grasping for ourselves at the expense of others. And it is Emerson, more than any other American writer and thinker, who described for us not only why America is uniquely placed to achieve this dream, but also exactly how each one of us can proceed to embody it.

As a matter of public record, I might mention that right after the election of 2008, Penguin Books published a small book containing President Obama's Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance." We know that "Self-Reliance" is a meaningful document for the president, and the publication is also a recognition of the place of Emerson's essay in the American pantheon of great texts.