The meaning and symbolism behind gifts- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that gifts were much more meaningful things than we imagine them to be. They are not merely objects which we exchange at times and events which require it of us, but each instance of gifting has a deep meaning behind it, symbolising the connection between giver and recipient.

He believed that one of the most wonderful gifts one could give was flowers. He believed that they were a “proud assertion that a ray of beauty outshines all the utilities of the world”. Flowers show that there is beauty in nature beyond the stern inherent properties of the land. To see flowers growing is “like hearing music from a workhouse window”. Fruits, he asserts, are the “flowers of commodity”, and are therefore highly suitable too.

He is interested in expressing the value of ‘mother nature’. He says that everyone loves flattery, and that flowers and fruits are mother nature flattering us. These are natural gifts of the earth. We are born from the earth, and the values of the earth are the values which we inherit. Therefore, there is something in the flower and the fruit which resonates in our soul. The perfections of nature, such as flowers, bestow upon us the experience of perfect mind, experience, beauty, when received. Since we are of the earth, and the earth expresses its love for us by gifting us these things, we are given them to gift to people, so he believed. I shall note here for those that do not know- Emerson was a pantheist. He believed that God was in all of nature, and in everything else too. Therefore, we could imagine ‘mother nature’ and ‘God’ to be interchangeable terms.

One further thing he believed was in gifting through the mode of necessity. The gift of necessity is the beauty of everyday life. If you gift somebody something which they need, they receive your gift not just when you give it to them, but every time it is of use. To give the homeless man shoes, to give food to the hungry, those are the examples he gives, and it is clear to see how they are of great value.

The greatest gifts though, he says, are those belonging to character. When we gift somebody a present which we have chosen for them, or better, made for them, with their character and needs in mind, the gift is best. The more it fits their character, the more meaningful the gift is. The painter should gift a painting, the poet should gift a poem. He believes that each person has an individual uniqueness which enables them to see and represent the world and the people they see in a way no other can, and we should use that to gift; it renders the gift unique, one of a kind, and most honest in nature. The gift which is greatest requires one to give a portion of one’s self. He says that every man’s wealth is an index of their merit. Therefore, to cultivate our natural talent (our essential nature, allowing it to be that which it is) increases our inner and outer wealth, and the value of our power to gift meaningfully.

This leads us to the conclusion, he asserts, that jewellery is a false gift. It is almost never crafted by the giver, has nothing personal about it (almost never), and he wonders what character of value would correspond to the bestowment of gold. He proposes that maybe only a king or queen is a fit recipient of gold.

As a transcendentalist, he believed that the true value of human nature was to be found in self-sufficiency. When we are self-sufficient, we have reached a pinnacle of spiritual freedom, an eternal paroxysm of the embracing of true selfhood. However, when one receives a gift, one is robbed of self-sufficiency for it puts one in debt to the gifter. That does not mean that this is always the case. Gifts are not all of the same nature. How does one gift without it robbing another’s self-sufficiency? By gifting out of pure love. This is not as simple as one would imagine, we have all been in a state of tribulation over picking a gift for another. It could even be asserted that the more important the person, the more we stress to gift something as apposite to them as possible.

The gift symbolises that which the gift is, yes, but it also symbolises the connection between the two people. The relationship is one of perfect harmony when the gift is most personal, and most meaningful. Emerson tells us to imagine that relationships are like the flow of water, when the friendship and the gift are in harmony, the water flows as one stream. When they are not in harmony, the waters do not flow together, they clash like waves in a stormy sea. This means that when we are like one flow, self-sufficiency is not removed because there is no balance to correct. The gifter maintains our self-sufficiency, improves it, even, whilst maintaining the same place in the relationship. The gift is therefore a symbol of a connection between two people. On the surface, we gift for the giving and receiving of a thing of value. On a deeper level, we gift to form bonds, to signify connections. They are natural compasses of the heart. A gift does not have to be physical then, it can be a gesture, it merely needs to have the content of the gift. Actions which we take to benefit others are all, on one level, functioning as gifts.

Moral rectitude within society has the difficult nature of making us feel in debt to gift whenever we receive a token of good will. As an act is bestowed upon us, as a gift is given to us, we acknowledge that we are in the favour of another. The gift can therefore be a rather political item. Receiving a gift is therefore an art within its self, and knowing how to understand a gift helps us to maintain the relationship correctly. We should always receive out of love, not just give out of love.

Emerson has an interest in gifting similarly to Marcel Mauss in that he’s interested in the content behind the gift. However, Mauss believed that the gift was an act which naturally emerged to bond societies. It keeps people in favour, and therefore makes sure that people stay close, for each act of love or rectitude has the value of gifting within it. The physical gif can therefore be seen as a more highly manifest form of the everyday gift of the heart. Emerson differs from Mauss in that he focuses on the gift’s ability to rob us of self-sufficiency. He is interested in the individual instances of gifting, whereas Mauss is interested in gifting as a phenomenon. To be in debt to another is to lose ourselves. His solution- to both give and receive with love liberates us from any political value it may have. Love purifies the deed.

If you want to read more about Emerson, CLICK HERE for my write-up on his essay ‘Circles’.

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