A Dialogue Between Gibran's Prophet and Emerson's Self-Reliant Man
Ralph Waldo Emerson is arguably the most important writer and thinker of the nineteenth century. His contributions to Transcendentalism and his works have earned him a lasting reputation. Nina Baym, general editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature wrote: "Emerson's persisting influence on late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century American writers is evident in astonishing permutations…" (489). While Kahlil Gibran is not a Transcendentalist himself, it is clear that these ideas, specifically Emerson's ideas, influenced him in his writings.
Joseph Sheban, translator and editor of Kahlil Gibran: Mirrors of the Soul, wrote that even a brief look at Gibran's works shows that he studied both eastern and western philosophies: "Gibran's thirst had taken him to the fountains of Buddha, Zoroaster, Confuscious, Voltaire, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Jefferson, Emerson, and even to Lincoln" (Sheban 54). Gibran, author of The Prophet, his most popular book written in English, lived a rather unique life. Having been born in Lebanon in 1883, baptized in a Maronite Catholic church, his mother, his brother and sisters, and he moved to America when he was about 12. In Boston, Gibran studied at a boys' school, then a night school for a few years, after which his mother sent him back to Lebanon to study at Madrasat Al-Hikmat, "The School of Wisdom." After that he traveled the world studying philosophy, theology, and focusing mainly on the arts.
Critical work on Kahlil Gibran is hard to find, and there is even less critical work on Emerson's influence on Gibran. Ahmad Y. Majdboubeh points out in his article, "Gibran's The Procession in the Transcendentalist Context," that what little work that has been done on the topic suggests that Emerson had influenced Gibran in two ways. First Emerson's "works are seen as the main vehicle through which Gibran became acquainted with Neo-Platonism and Buddhism," and second, that Emerson's ideas were a "direct source" for some of Gibran's ideas. (Majdoubeh 478)
Emerson and Gibran came from quite different religious backgrounds and environments, but, despite that, they exhibit many of the same Transcendentalist ideas in their two most popular works. Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance," gives guidelines, in a sense, as to how Emerson believed a self-actualized man should and would live. The true man, according to Emerson, is the Self-Reliant man, he does not change for anyone, thinks for himself, and believes in God and the divine self [i]. The title character of The Prophet is Almustafa, "the chosen and beloved" (1). He has been living in a city called Orphalese for twelve years and is about to leave for his home country. The people of the city gather around him and express their desire for him to stay, but since he cannot they ask him to tell them his truth. He speaks of what they ask him to: religion, friends, good and evil, self-knowledge, and other important issues.
These two characters, the Self-Reliant man and Almustafa, it seems, are very similar but not identical. Gibran's ideas on the advice Almustafa should give are not only similar to the ideas Emerson has on his Self-Reliant man, but they enhance the ideas in creative ways. There are three main themes that permeate both works: emphasis on the Self, how to live your life, and religion. In these major themes, both authors come up with sub points that tie together throughout their respective works.
They both talk about being alone or solitary. The Self-Reliant man would say that you should be in solitude as often as you can because then you can know yourself better. However, it is easy to know yourself in solitude, "but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude" (536). By this, he means that a great man would know and stay true to himself and what he knows of himself even though he is surrounded by people who would change him. Almustafa agrees that you must get to know yourself. He says: "the silence of aloneness reveals to [your] eyes [your] naked selves…" (71), so he agrees that in solitude you can know yourself better.
Alone, the Self-Reliant man says, " we hear [our own voices] in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter the world" (535). He is saying that in a crowd your independent, solitary thoughts are silenced, another reason to be a solitary person. Talking, according to Almustafa is like the crowd the Self-Reliant man speaks of. When you talk, your thought is like a caged bird; it is not free. However, Emerson writes of how one should speak ones thoughts no matter what. The Self-Reliant man, therefore, would disagree with Almustafa about talking and instead would suggest talking about your thoughts as much as you possibly can, "else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what [you] have thought and felt all the time, and [you] shall be forced to take with shame [your] own opinion from another" (533). You wouldn't want someone else to take your ideas, and so you should make sure you speak them so people know they are yours. Almustafa would add, however, that you should at least be intelligent when you talk.
Though both Almustafa and the Self-Reliant man are solitary people, they know that friends are an inevitable part of life. When it comes to friends, you must not copy them or try to be like them. Instead you should show them your true self. As Gibran says through Almustafa: "If he [your friend] must know the ebb of your tide let him know its flood also" (70). With this quote, Almustafa is saying you should show your friend what is good about yourself as well as what is bad. The Self-Reliant man would completely agree with this sentiment, saying you should make a promise to your friends (and family) that you will be your true self. He says to tell them "if you can love me for what I am, we shall be happier… If you are true but not in the same truth with me… I will seek my own [companions]" (543-544). The Self-Reliant man would not only make sure he doesn't change for anyone, but if his friends didn't agree with him, he would seek new ones.
According to Emerson's Self-Reliant man, when you are a true man, you are good and you know goodness. However, "good and bad are but names readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it" (535). Almustafa says something quite similar when he speaks of good and evil; "You are good when you are one with yourself" (75); he goes on explaining that you can do good things, and be good, but if you do bad things or rather do not do good things, that does not make you evil or bad. You should try to do what is right and what is good according to yourself because that is what is important rather than what everyone tells you is right and good.
You know God, yourself, better than any man can tell you about Him, and so according to both men, it is better to go to church, or worship, alone. "Even as each one of you stands alone in God's knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in [your] knowledge of God" (68). You shouldn't trust what other people tell you about God or religion. According to the Self-Reliant man, if you did listen to a man who "claims to know and speak of God" (541), he would carry you backward instead of helping you understand God better.
When you pray, you should not ask for things; it is vicious according to the Self-Reliant man and Almustafa says that you would not receive anything that you ask for. Prayer, according to Emerson's Self-Reliant man, "is the contemplation of the facts of life" (545). And according to Almustafa prayer is "but the expansion of yourself into the living ether…" (78). But both believe prayer and religion should be and are a part of your daily actions in life: "As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action" (545). Almustafa must agree with this because he states that "God listens not to your words save when He Himself utters them through your lips" (81). When you speak your prayers it is God, Himself, saying the words through your lips. He does not want to hear his own words in prayer, so what else can you do but pray with your actions.
God is all things: He is Nature according to the Self-Reliant man, and He is the "sphere" or entire earth according to Almustafa. Throughout all of The Prophet, Almustafa talks of God being all things. For example, he says: "you are a breath in God's sphere and a leaf in God's forest…" (60). Religion is in everything you do and in everything around you as well: "your daily life is your temple and your religion" (91). You do not, according to Almustafa, stop worshiping as long as you are loving life. The Self-Reliant man would believe everything included in life is a part of religion as well. He would say, " the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, … but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed [God]" (540). God, or religion, is in all things; life, being, and the soul.
The Divinity of the soul or the self is something important in both works, though Emerson, through the Self-Reliant man, speaks of it a bit more directly. "Insist on yourself; never imitate. … That which each can to best, none but his Maker can teach him" (547), the Self-Reliant man would say, explaining that God is in each of us helping us do our best at whatever we do. Throughout the entire speech Almustafa gives to the people of Orphalese, whether he's speaking of working or pleasure, he talks about the divinity people have inside of them. For example, when Almustafa speaks of houses, he explains that a house cannot hold your "magnificence and splendor… For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky…" (40-41). Your souls are boundless just as angels and God are boundless in heaven.
The Self-Reliant man would believe that people should be like children: "infancy conforms to nobody" (534); confident, they say what's on their minds with no view of the consequences. He goes on by explaining that the pupils of a teacher can learn from their master; however, what they learn may have helped them grow but it is only a base to what they truly know: "the luminaries of heaven seem to them hung on the arch their master built" (546). Almustafa enhances this argument by explaining that "their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow," they cannot be like their parents because "life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday" (20).
Both men seem to have a very different view of the past. Almustafa speaks about how the past should be remembered: "let to-day embrace the past with remembrance" (74) while Emerson talks about how the past is not very important, that instead we should look at ourselves in the present and keep moving forward: "history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming" (541). The Self-Reliant man would not care for the past, unlike Almustafa.
Emerson's influence on Gibran is evident with even just a cursory look at all of Gibran's works. Both Gibran and Emerson exhibit Transcendentalist ideas in all of their works. Readers can learn so much from these two works; how to live their lives, the importance of the emphasis on the self, and that religion is in everything in life. The ideas from "Self-Reliance" can be used to enhance what one reads in The Prophet, and vice versa. Almustafa and the Self-Reliant man would have much to talk about if they were real. They contradict each other sometimes and agree with each other at other times, enhancing each other's ideas all along.
[i] For the purposes of this essay, I will speak of the Self-Reliant man as a character that Emerson has created. I will also be speaking to a second person party, "you," as both Emerson and Gibran wanted to instruct their readers on the topics they wrote about.
Gibran. The Prophet. Surrey: Senate; An Imprint of Merchant Book Company, Ltd., 2003.
Majdoubeh, Ahmad Y. "Gibrans The Procession in the Transcendentalist Context." Arabica 49.4 (2002): 477-493.
"Ralph Waldo Emerson." The Norton Anthology of American Literature; Shorter Seventh Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. , 2008. 488-492.
Sheban, Joseph, ed. Kahlil Gibran; Mirrors of the Soul. New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1965.