Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" is probably one of his most famous writings. To learn more about this essay, or the man himself, see other nodes. This is simply my response to an excerpt from the essay. The excerpt is below:
"Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."
The seven above names belong to, arguably, seven of the most important figures in Western philosophy. The author uses their lives to emphasize his point: that truly great men are always misunderstood in their time by most because they are non-conformists. Pythagoras' math was dismissed as trivial. Socrates' philosophy was passed over for more conventional thought. Jesus' "love thy neighbor" doctrine was and is almost uniformly ignored or misinterpreted. Luther's desire to end the practice of selling indulgences was taken as a bold move to part from the Church (even today, few people understand what the 95 Theses really said). Copernicus' revolutionary work with the stars was hidden in a university so that ignorance could continue unchecked. Galileo was made to recant his life's work so that Church dogma was protected. Newton's laws of physics and theory of gravity were largely passed over in favor of his work with math. Sensing a pattern? Where humanity's perspective of reality could have been radically altered, facts were lost, ignored, or misinterpreted, despite their originators. None of these men were called heroes or geniuses in their time. None of them lived to see the repercussions of the intellectual revolutions they began. These revolutions were such dramatic leaps forward in thought that the bulk of society simply couldn't accept them.
For a single man, philosophy can progress quickly. For a group, it must move slowly. There is a trend towards stagnation, punctuated by slow evolution in thought and the rare leap forward. These leaps are caused by catastrophic events: invasions, diseases, natural disasters. The Renaissance of the 15th century involved very few people; the majority of the population stayed in their villages and continued the work that their ancestors had begun long before Rome fell. Occasionally a new invention--the plow, for instance, or crop rotation--would slowly sweep through the collective consciousness. It was not until the Industrial Revolution that a shift from agriculture began to change the philosophy of humanity--and that was no quick change. It continues today in third world countries.
Emerson advises that a man step away from the group so that his own philosophy might evolve. He must throw off the artificial trappings of society and rely upon himself, rather than the group, for intellectual development. Through his allusion, Emerson reveals a keen understanding of how history proves him right again and again. Emerson certainly valued studying history in order for a man or a group to progress intellectually, but he expressed little hope of the group ever learning anything. In Emerson's mind, a man must be self-reliant to be anything, as his choice of historical figures proves.