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Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American writer-philosopher-lecturer (1803-1882) who from every surface, sign, and signal would appear to the average person a rather dry gentleman who your teachers most likely burdened you with when you were studying American literature in high school. However, if one were to actually, thoughtfully look into his work a bit deeper and read beyond the incredibly sterile works that some school board or federal commission decided that teens should read, you will found an outrageous punk rock thinker. One of his most rebellious and wild works is entitled Self-Reliance. In this era of almost compulsive righteous tongue wagging, awareness spreading, and charity haggling, I believe this piece of spike-literature should be pulled out of the barn and taken for a spin.
The essay opens with an argument that, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.” (Self-Reliance, Emerson) What Emerson immediately wants to make clear in his essay is that your own mind is the only mind you should adhere to—that we must not be blind followers of wise men of the past—for he cleverly argues that those wise men of the past survived time and are revered because they expressed their own opinions. One should never fear being odd, different, or misunderstood. He argues that actually learning to abide by your own sense of right and wrong and virtue is the only real way wisdom can be found. “Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.” (Self-Reliance, Emerson) And to not go the way of the masses, he points out, will most likely cause you some friction; however, for Emerson, the price of not picking your own mind over others’ minds is to live as a dead, soulless man.
Next, Emerson attacks mass movements. Here he would really be crucified—especially on social media. He attacks political parties (both the right and the left), he attacks charities, and he attacks religion. Honestly, everyone who carries a banner of any cause will be upset by him. He challenges the virtue and wisdom of these movements as well as the good that they provide. Like charitable causes—he points out that while people wring their hands and spend time and energy to spread awareness and collect donations for faraway people—they are neglecting those nearby—that it is clear in their personal lives that they are not so kind to their servants, family members, and neighbors. He re-ties this logic back to the orginal premise that man’s life is the health and expression of his interior wealth. His argument is not really to not care about the world, rather to be wary of and not to put one’s value in externals. Fighting for external causes also then creates an external self and an external society, and so while political parties, charities, and organized religion may score some wins, all of the wins are equalized by a great loss. The great loss is conditioning people to base their happiness and worth on externals—instead of developing a deep sense of inner peace and worth. One of the results is that people become external judges of each other. “They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.” (Self-Reliance, Emerson) One can easily see this in our own era, as we both strive to raise billions of dollars for charity and are desperate to have wealth, popularity, and prestige. “All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves. Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.” (Self-Reliance, Emerson) Emerson points out that the one comes with the other and the only way out of the pointless tug of war is to develop a deep inner trust in one’s own mind.
Punk rock thinkers are dangerous and independent and do not care what others think of them. I highly doubt Emerson was always as daring as he claims one should be—not all of us are up for dying for our ideals like Socrates and Jesus. And he even cedes that he does at times find himself handing out a dollar or two for charitable causes. However, I think it’s still a great essay with thoughtful insights regarding our relationship to ourselves and how that affects our relationship to the world. The final part of the essay deals with accepting your own lot—your own talents and weakness—and to not look outside for who you should be or for approval. Here Emerson is less sassy and more circumspect. One senses that he does care for people, but in a different way than perhaps we see in sympathy or charity as he eloquently makes the case that to really find happiness and wisdom one must not look outside rather inside and no matter what others try to tell you—trust yourself above all else. “There is a time in everyman’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is giver to him to till” (Self-Reliance, Emerson).
The video below is Emerson's complete essay, Self-Reliance, read aloud.