Emerson believes that there is something that draws us to people who live with self-trust. What is the basis of that self-trust, he asks, which draws our admiration in the same way a star would? According to Emerson, “We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.” The ultimate source of self-trust and “the essence of genius” is intuition, and all other beliefs and teachings are built upon that foundation.
We can recognize intuition in moments of self-reflection, Emerson says—“calm hours” that reveal the underlying unity of everything. The soul, space, light, and time are unified because they are all from the same source. We forget this merely from force of habit, but in truth “[w]e lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity.” If we observe the universe at work, especially in nature, we will become wise. Everything in existence can serve as a source of truth, and our ability to perceive justice and truth are really just the universe expressing reality through us. Emerson distinguishes these perceptions from intellectual notions of our experiences by noting that perceptions are involuntary and spontaneous (and thus worthy of our trust), while intellectual notions are the result of an individual’s conscious choice (and thus less likely to be worthy of our complete trust).
The highly abstract language in this section is used to represent the transcendentalist perspective on the relationship between God and the individual, which is sometimes mediated by nature. That abstraction is balanced by the simplicity of what he advocates: contemplation of the self or contemplation of nature. Emerson’s distinction between perception of experiences and intellectual notions of experience is also another example of his prioritizing intuition over other sources of knowledge, including reason itself.
Emerson believes that the ability to tap into the underlying unity of existence—God, in this case—through perception means that people should never allow anything to get in the way of that perception. Therefore, anyone who insists that the individual should turn to conventional means of understanding the divine—“means, temples, text, teachers”—should be dismissed out of hand. All these things of the past are meaningless when it comes to the soul perceiving.
Emerson makes an explicit attack on societally sanctioned sources of truth, further emphasizing the importance of nonconformity to becoming truly moral. That attack is specifically grounded in the transcendentalist perspective on the individual as the source of truth and Emerson’s trust in intuition over institutionalized religion.
Rather than timidly looking to the past, individuals would be better off looking to nature to understand how to move through the world, Emerson posits. He observes that the blade of grass, the rose bud, the leaf bud, and the root are all complete without reference to others of their kind, and they live always in the present. People, on the other hand, continually look to the past or the future instead of living in the moment and perceiving the universe all around them. The individual will never achieve happiness unless they also live only in the present and reject the notion of time. This approach should be completely obvious, but conventional morality leads people to instead turn to some authority outside of themselves, such as the apostles who wrote the Christian scriptures. Emerson looks forward to a time when this weakness will subside.
Emerson puts imagery of nature to various uses in order to illustrate important aspects of self-reliance. His first use of natural imagery, the rose, is an example of how humans should live without worrying about the past. He also presents a flower in each of its stages of development as still being a flower in order to support the idea that the past should not be the central force that determines how an individual understands morality.