Ralph Waldo Emerson is the quintessential American philosopher, and his most famous essay, the flinty "Self Reliance," has significantly shaped the American psyche as well as its political landscape, for better - and for worse. Emerson is generally thought of as what we'd call a liberal, believing in free thinking, emancipation, women's rights. And transcendentalism - the jettisoning of religious dogma, replacing it with an individual spirituality based on the belief of a divine self within oneself. Christian fundamentalists shriek 'godless humanist,' but if you examine Emerson a little more closely, parts of 'Self Reliance' dovetail tightly with those of the Tea Party and your standard right wing Republicans.
Take, for instance, Emerson's view on charity and contributing money to the less fortunate. From "Self Reliance" - 'Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousand-fold Relief Societies;— though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.'
Not really your NPR liberal - in fact, this is exactly the same overarching theme Ayn Rand hammers home relentlessly throughout all of "Atlas Shrugged," one of the Bibles of the Tea Party movement.
On the other hand, Emerson rather majestically displays his unwavering belief in human individualism and the nobility of doing what you are meant to do. Enter Bob Dylan. Though Dylan has never cited Emerson as an influence in the same way he references the ethos of Woody Guthrie or Jack Kerouac, parts of "Self Reliance" could be a virtual blueprint for the way Dylan has approached his life and career.
There is at least one fingerprint possibly pointing to Dylan studying Emerson's "Self Reliance." Early on in the essay, Emerson writes, 'Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.' The song "Trust Yourself" from Empire Burlesque certainly lists Emersonian "Self Reliance" type dictums and the title appears to be referencing Emerson.
The way that Dylan has approached his entire creative life is laid out in "Self Reliance." The following passage especially prefigures Dylan's often confounding turnabouts and changes in his musical/creative path. 'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with the shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.—" Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood."— '
When he turned his back on the Folk movement, Dylan was turning his back on the adoring little statesmen - the leading figures in folk music of the time - who had embraced him as their messiah. Most of them fell by the wayside, became irrelevant, as Dylan forged ahead, guided by his own vision and desire to be a great soul in music. He has unquestionably achieved that, as well as retained his vibrancy and relevance. And, of course, he has always staunchly refused to accept any whiff of messiah-hood while doing so, as he displays in "Trust Yourself."
Trust yourself to do the things that only you know best
Trust yourself to do what’s right and not be second-guessed
Don’t trust me to show you beauty
When beauty may only turn to rust
If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself'
Compare Dylan's abject mistrust of journalists and the press to the following "Self Reliance" quotes - 'Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.' 'What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.'
Or his general 'I don't care if I don't fit in or not' attitude, seen over and over - going electric, going country, making gospel records, the rambling speech at the Grammys, wearing sunglasses while receiving an award at the White House, claiming in Rolling Stone he'd been transfigured - Dylan's always adamantly and spectacularly adhered to Emerson's statement 'Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage (approval - endorsement) of the world.'
'Dylan's variation - “If you try to be anyone but yourself, you will fail; if you are not true to your own heart, you will fail. Then again, there's no success like failure.”
Finally, not from "Self Reliance" but from The American Scholar, the following quote seems to describe an experience Dylan relays in "Tangled Up in Blue."
“There is…creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue
Whether or how much Dylan has been influenced directly by Emerson is hard to gauge, as he's never spoken on the subject. Whatever the case may be, it's obvious that Dylan has long followed an Emersonian path of fierce individuality and nonconformity, continually vibrating to that 'iron string,' the courage to trust himself.