Thursday, April 25, 2013

Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson


Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an essay by the very influential American philosopher. Emerson, whose life spanned from 1803 to 1882, introduced the philosophical school known as Transcendentalism. I am slowly working my way through this philosopher’s major works and becoming acquainted with his worldview.

One problem that I have with Emerson, at least compared to the limited number of other philosophers that I have read, is that he tends to stay general and does not always drill down into historical, fictional or real life examples on the points that he is attempting to make. This makes him very difficult to pin down. Most interpretations of his meaning and intentions lend themselves to a counterargument that he is being misinterpreted.

Self Reliance is both a positive exhortation of the intellectual and spiritual self, paired with the negative rejection of outside influences upon the psyche. He decries the idea of individuals following particular philosophies, political parties, organized religions etc. One basis for his arguments is that there is a universal spirit of wisdom endowed by God and nature that is inherent in all people.

“Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. “

Following external organized belief systems can never lead to an understanding of the essence of this inner wisdom.

Emerson goes further down this path as he even rejects the over-reliance on reason as being essentially an external belief system and instead exhorts the reader to follow their instincts and gut feelings when determining what is right and what is moral.

“When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or its absence is all we can affirm. Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. “

Emerson keeps going as he identifies even our past beliefs and perceptions as external and therefore factors that should not be relied upon.

“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 his 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 every thing you said to-day.”

Later, he rejects other things such as personal property, searching for truth through science and even European influence upon American architecture as counterproductive overreliance on the external.


On the positive side, the essay is full of exhortations for the individual to trust their own mind as well as to disregard the approval of others. When one contemplates the plethora of self-help books that are so popular these days and whose authors urge one to become self-actualized by loving oneself and rejecting the opinions of others, one discerns Emerson’s influence.

As a firm believer in independent thinking and intellectual independence, I find some of Emerson’s views here very much in line with my own. For instance, when it comes to the issue of not conforming to the ideas of loved ones just to go along and be accepted, while at the same time balancing this independence with the value in the relationships themselves, Emerson writes,

Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, 'O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife,— but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. “

But then the philosopher descends into what for me is untenable territory,

If you are noble, I will love you: if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. “

I believe that the above represents an extreme intolerance towards belief systems that one does not agree with and is thus the road to strident closed-mindedness. Furthermore, cleaving only to those who agree with one’s self is surely the path to intellectual stagnation. In addition, Emerson’s criticism of science and reason does not, in my opinion, reflect a realistic way to find truth in life.

Despite the fact that I mostly disagree with Emerson’s worldview and the fact that I believe he takes what are some great ideas to unnecessary extremes, this is an interesting and important work. In addition, his proses are a joy to read. Emerson was an innovative and lively thinker and his viewpoints have had a significant influence upon the modern world. 



My commentary on Emerson's Nature, is here.

33 comments:

Richard said...

I haven't read Emerson in years, but you do a good job reminding me of his pros and cons as a thinker here. Was tickled to see that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" line highlighted in your post as it plays a minor role in the film "Next Stop Wonderland" that I've been thinking about watching again recently. A funny coincidence!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I see a major difference in the way we approach Emerson - I do not think of him as a philosopher of any real consequence, but rather as an essayist in the tradition of Montaigne. One mind at work on the problems of life, sharing what he finds, however imperfect.

But not, then, making an argument. Thus the difficulties you mention in the second paragraph. The counterarguments are meant to be visible, even obvious.

That damn hobgoblin line lets him get away with anything.

Suko said...

I find Emerson (and Thoreau) quite interesting; or at least, I used to. It's been many years since I've read their work. I wonder what Emerson means by "noble" in your quote. (I think that's the key to understanding what he means.)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - I have not seen "Next Stop Wonderland" but that is a great line! I actually try hard to find the pros and cons in everyone'e viewpoint!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I think that there is something to your difference between the more serious philosophers and the essayists. I must admit that I really have not read enough of either to fully appreciate the differences.

As you note, the hobgoblin line is an ingenious escape clause.



Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I think that you hit on something by focusing upon the word "noble". Note that in the next line "if you are true, but not in the same truth with me" differentiates that of not being noble with those whom he just disagrees with. Of course he still advocates some kind of social separation from those.

stujallen said...

I read this a few years ago after I read walden by thoreau ,amazing how much of what he wrote is still meaningful today ,all the best stu

Lucy said...

Thank you for this review! I have this book on my bookshelf, but I haven't yet started it. Transcendentalism really interests me, however, and I really enjoyed studying The American Scholar this year. It seemed so beautifully written, and so applicable to modern life.

I like the sound of Emerson's emphasis on instinct over reason in Self-Reliance, and I think I may give it a go when my exams are over.

All the best.

Naida said...

I've only every read random Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes.
"If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own."<-this does sound very close minded of him. Then again he's saying to love him for who he is. I think he was a complex person.
Great post Brian! Enjoy your weekend :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - Good point about meaningfulness. I think that one thing that sometimes distinguishes a great mind is the timelessness of their ideas.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - i have not yet read The American Scholar but will likely do so as I make my way through Emerson.

I found that the whole instinct over reason belief system a common thread in many things that I reed from the 1700's on.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this if you decide to read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Good point about Emerson's contradictions and his related complexity.

In my opinion this is often also the sign of an important thinker.

Book Dilettante said...

I wonder if Emerson would feel the same if he were in today's world.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Though it is hard to know if his opinions have changed I find that at least when it comes to many elements of modern society, Emerson's views have become very popular.


There are major distrust of institutions and every kind of belief system. People are segmented into their own little belief group and are often intolerant of diverging opinions. This is especially true when it comes to politics.

Sharon Henning said...

Very interesting view, Brian. I have yet to read anything by Emerson. I've always shied away from him because he didn't strike me as someone I would be interested in. I'm glad to be able to read your review of his books, though.
My opinion on him could change, thanks to you. Not because I agree with his philosophy but because it's good to read the line of logic people take to explain why they believe what they believe.
I'm currently discovering that with William Blake. Take care!

Caroline said...

I think I agree with Tom and would rather call him an essayist than a philosopher but that doesn't take away anything from him, of course.
I find it interesting that you read through his work although you often disagree.
I was wondering about that last quote. It didn't strike me as intolerant. On the very contrary but maybe I misunderstand. I think that telling somone to stay with those who think like they do he speaks against proselytism but it's possible I got that all wrong.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon -I like to follow these logical progressions that people take too. It is one of the things that make reading this stuff so interesting.

I have not read Blake yet. I look forward to reading your thoughts on him.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I think that one of the major points to reading is to be exposed to divergent ideas.


You and time may very well be correct when it comes to the last quote. As I mention, Emerson, unlike similar writers that I have read, does not provide a lot of examples so that he is difficult to pin down.

Rachel Bradford said...

Interesting comments. I think the final quote about seeking his own companions if you do not think like him is interesting - a bit unexpected, I guess. But I haven't read any of his essays, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised!

I am a firm believer in finding your own path, but I think that it is impossible to find much of a path if you are intolerant and uninterested in others' philosophies!

It takes all types, though! Who am I to be intolerant of a dead man's intolerance? ;)

Violet said...

I think it's easy for us to forget from our 21C perspective just how rigid society was in Emerson's time, and I think that both he and Thoreau were engaged in exploring their own minds and thoughts and ways of being in the world. I see them as being Philosophers Lite, which may be unkind, but I can't really compare them with Kant or Nietzsche, et al.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - As I am currently reading alot of Emerson I agree that one needs to be careful about picking out one line. I have read a very limited numbers of philosophers and essayists. With that said several of them, Nietzsche in particular tend to be a bit testy when addressing diverging belief systems.

I do think that we need to judge the belief systems of folks like Emerson as he was advocating a worldview that he wished that everyone embrace.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I agree about society being so much more rigid in the time of Emerson and how such a situation would influence ones interactions with others.

I find this thread interesting, Yourself, Tom and Caroline arguing that Emerson was not exactly the same thing as other philosophers. I feel that I do not know enough about philosophy to have a really strong opinion.I am on the level of a journeyman at best. With that said a few points that I am thinking about - - Emerson did lay out a coherent worldview that encompassed, God, the meaning of life, psychology, etc. He did so using reason and logic. This belief system has had an enormous influence on current thinking. I personally know lots of folks who come really close to sharing his worldview.

Heidi’sbooks said...

Great review and comments. My daughter is studying Emerson and Thoreau in her college class. She was asking me questions, but I haven't read them! Yikes. Another author I need to explore.

I was thinking about this collective knowledge idea--or what does he call it?--when I read Finding Moosewood, Finding god.

As I work teaching children, it's hard to fully embrace this idea. Children really have no idea about concepts and especially history. I'm always astounded by what my children don't know.

We do have a connection to each other. I guess I'll just have to read it to find out exactly what he's saying. Thanks for spurring me on to read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - I completely agree with you when it comes to collective knowledge. I have come across a lot of people who believe in it both personally and in my reading. The problem everyone seems to have completely different opinion about the specifics of this knowledge.

I also agree with us having a connection in terms of us all having a lot in common.

JaneGS said...

I applaud your project to actually read what Emerson wrote--I'm not sure I have the fortitude myself to do so. As you point out, he stays at the abstract level and doesn't indulge in story-telling to make his point.

I've always found his impracticality maddening, but I think you are on to something with the observation about intolerance and stagnation.

Interesting post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - One nice thing about reading Emerson that makes him enjoyable is that I find him to be a great prose writer. He flows almost like poetry.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

This is a very cogent analysis of a work of seminal influence in the history of philosophy, and I greatly enjoyed reading it!

The quotes you have chosen indicate that Emerson went to extremes in some areas, so I do agree with you when you criticize him for doing so.

On the whole, from what you're saying here, it seems as if this is a very self-contradictory work. His statement regarding consistency totally baffles me. What the heck is wrong with being consistent? Does this not indicate that one is following a code of behavior that reflects one's most deeply felt moral convictions, which, by the way, were formed by religious belief systems? Or does he mean that one should not be so predictable that one becomes boring? I think this is one of those extremes you're referring to. This one point does bear some analysis. If one's behavior is consistently inconsistent (lol), this will tend to drive other people up the wall. Besides, being consistently inconsistent IS being consistent!

Since I'm a moderate in all things (at least, I try to be consistently so...) I totally dislike extremes. So, while I do agree with Emerson on the matter of not thinking or behaving in certain ways in order to please others, I still think that society needs an objective moral compass. If everyone relied upon their instincts exclusively, then MY belief that what I'm doing is right might conflict with yours, especially if what I believe is right, will somehow cause you harm.

I must definitely get my hands on this book! It obviously has much food for thought. I want to read it just so that I can formulate refutations to some of Emerson's ideas, although I do agree with others.

Thanks for another EXCELLENT review!! :)

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Moderation in all things, including moderation.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria -I did get the impression from this essay that Emerson does advocate being ready to throw beliefs out if one finds it to necessarily do so. He comes down fairly strongly on the side of being able to reject long held patterns of thought quickly) suppose that one of many reasons that thinkers like Emerson come to prominence is

I would disagree with you, at least in part regarding morality and religion. I do think that morality has and can exist without religion. I also find most religious believe systems, at least in regards to their original texts, to be a mix of admirable, moral teachings with the advocacy of horrendous barbarity or at least questionable morality (granted, there are exceptions).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Ha! How true. Not too much moderation!

vb said...

I read somewhere that Emerson is too smart to be a philosopher..His view on reliance, justice morality and the thinking process is a real treat to read...I must say I haven't read any of his work except his essay "history" though I have been wanting to read more of his work but I must admit that it never materialized..

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - Ha! That is a great thought about Emerson being too smart to be a true philosopher! I wonder who wrote it.

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