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.