The best ship sails in a zigzag line

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred stacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”

I didn’t really understand most of Emerson’s writing but that quote made sense to me. Someone in my class brought up the example of sailing a ship in relation to this quote. When you sail you have to turn your sail into the wind so your boat moves. To get to a destination while sailing you go in a zigzag pattern because of the wind. This metaphor is so great because it relates to everyone throughout his or her lives. We are all so quick to persecute ourselves when we think our lives are going off track. This quote reminds us that just taking a step back to remember what our goal was and to re- commit ourselves; we will see the bigger picture.

Emerson goes on to say, “Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. The force of character is cumulative.” This quote relates directly to ‘the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks’, because both are saying that you should live for the present and the future. Emerson talks a lot about what being genuine is and not looking to others for recognition.

To me, these quotes mean it is more genuine to me present today than to recount yesterdays. As long as you do what makes you happy than you are a genuine person. Whatever you are doing may get hard and you may have to push against the wind to get where you want to go. If in those moments you don’t look to others for their approval and you only care that you are making yourself happy, I think that would be Emerson’s ideal “voyage”. “Trust thyself” as Emerson would say. He wants non- conformists to refuse to be defined by their pasts, he wants them to tackle the present challenges. I love the freedom this brings. You could even go as far as saying the quality of your adventure is determined by you as well. You decide how hard you push back against the wind or which goals to alter because of the wind. The magnitude of the challenges you are tackling in the present and in the future do not matter, all that matters is that you keep fighting the wind.

Like I said, I didn’t understand much of Emerson with his poetic writing, nature induced imagery, and metaphors but these two quotes really stuck out in my head so I had to see if anyone felt the same about what he was trying to say. I’m sure there are a hundred ways to interpret what he is saying. I just figured other students would find some meaning in what he was saying because many of us channel our “innermost nomad” and say things without thinking or take classes because it seemed like a good idea at the time. But over time it seems to make sense even though you had to ‘zigzag’ around a bit.

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2 Responses to The best ship sails in a zigzag line

  1. newbieblogster13 says:

    I agree with your interpretation of that quote because that is how I read it too. He emphasizes much on the self and how conforming with others pretty much kill the self. Also, I would not have fully understood that metaphor had someone not said it was necessary to zigzag during strong winds to get to one direction. Since someone explained that, I see the zigzag as a person’s effort to get through their hardships and the wind is the opposition such as people trying to get a person to conform. Following other people is like letting the wind win and all you get is pushed away from your goal.

  2. I completely agree with your interpretation of the first quote, and I think it is an excellent choice to pick out from Emerson’s writing. This quote not only shows how people need to find their own path, but that they have to go against the winds of society in order to find their own individuality. Emerson also says, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness” (23). I liked this quote in comparison with the first one you chose because Emerson explains that your only concern should be yourself and not what others think about you. The ship is only concerned with its destination, just as the individual should only be concerned with their goals.

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