Self-Reliance is an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is a quick, easy, less than an hour read. It is an American classic and worth the time to take a look at. Early in the essay Emerson celebrates the spirit of independence and trusting our own instincts:
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.”
It is inspiring to think we all have such genius within us and can boldly face our circumstances and take control. It makes you want to jump up and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Emerson was a Transcendentalist. He was a part of an American movement of wordsmiths and other artists and philosophers that believed there is divine within each of us and we are therefore capable of “transcending” or bringing about a better world, that is, spirit being able to transcend matter. It was part of the Romantic movement, less enamored with the arts and bent more on good deeds. While they did some wonderful, altruistic things and the movement produced some amazing American writers, they get a little weird at Transcendentalism’s core believing that insight and instinct are superior to logic. Think through the consequences of that belief. It becomes a simple matter to justify irrational behavior as “insight”.
Though his words are inspiring and contain some truth, a closer read shows us they advocate, at the core, selfishness. Emerson states:
“There is a mortifying experience in particular, which does not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean “the foolish face of praise,” the forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping willfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable sensation.”
He would have us believe that forcing ourselves to be mannerly and civil is not good character, but rather a lack of character. Emerson wishes the world to say and do exactly what they think. Would we want to live in such a world? We have names for those who do and say exactly what they think and none of those names are flattering.
“The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?”
Emerson seems to rate self-reliance higher than reliability. I am guessing he did not have to hold down a job like the rest of us. Not valuing consistency and reliability would certainly force one to be self-reliant.
The essay is at first inspiring, then incongruous, then disappointing to find one could not actually live in the narcissism Emerson advocates, at least not if everyone else is also living by Emerson’s rules. The beauty of being human lives in our ability to nurture relationships. We were made for relationship.Though self-reliance should be one part of our make-up as whole and healthy people, it cannot be our creed and manifesto. Why get married? Why be a part of a family? A church? A neighborhood? We need each other and that is healthy and good.
Give the essay a read and let me know what you think!
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