Origin of To Be Great is to Be Misunderstood
Ralph Waldo Emerson coined this phrase in his essay, Self Reliance. This phrase holds very powerful meaning, as the author continues saying:
“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.”
Emerson has used this phrase in the context that if people misunderstand a person due to his different ideas from the masses, then the person is, in fact, a great thinker.
Meaning of To Be Great is to Be Misunderstood
This line implies that, usually, the general population does not accept or understand greatness. As long as a person lives with his dreams and passions, whether accepted or not, it is right for his well-being. Another interpretation of this phrase can be that someone sees a completely different perspective of ideas and things in such a way that no one has ever thought or seen them before, because of their outlook about things and ideas is unusual.
Usage of To Be Great is to Be Misunderstood
This phrase applies to many eminent and famous people, like Albert Einstein, Newton, Socrates, Pythagoras, Copernicus, and Galileo. However, we can use it in our everyday and professional lives too. Especially it can be useful in creative writing, and writers can express their innovative ideas by employing this phrase. Likewise, scientists, painters, and architects can also use this phrase for supporting their ideas and beliefs. Politicians can use this to assert their greatness. Teachers can use this in the class to teach greatness to the students.
Literary Source of To Be Great is to Be Misunderstood
Emerson has used this phrase metaphorically in the fourteenth paragraph of his essay. He goes on to mention a number of great individuals, including Socrates, Jesus, Pythagoras, and Copernicus. Initially, all of them were misunderstood due to their unique and great ideas. Emerson says:
“‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? 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.”
Literary Analysis of To Be Great is to Be Misunderstood
The idea behind this phrase is that an urge to be consistent with past beliefs and actions inhibits an individual from expressing his nature, and to be innovation. Misunderstanding is a figurative expression of greatness. Emerson tells the people that they need not hold onto old positions and beliefs merely because their elders held them. He suggests that, as individuals mature, they bring an evolution of new ideas that is a source of creativity. Therefore, in order to escape from past beliefs, it is important to reevaluate and review past opinions and decisions, admitting their flaws. In doing so, the new ideas and beliefs would appear inconsistent and often misunderstood. Despite that, they would be very creative and unique to be misunderstood.
- Metaphor: Misunderstanding is metaphor for greatness.
- Aphorism: This phrase is an example of an aphorism.
Emerson is commenting on how many great men followed their own intuition in spite of criticism or misunderstanding from society. He says,
"Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? 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 that he adds "To be great is to be misunderstood."
In context, Emerson also says that great men are not always consistent. In fact, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines". Thus, if one is not always consistent, one may be misunderstood. But, since many great men have not be understood by society, then you are you have great company when people don't understand you. What is important, according to Emerson, is that one not violate his or her own nature. You must be true to yourself, even if it mean saying one thing one day and saying something else the next day. That way we show that we trust ourselves and not others to dictate our beliefs.