I choose to discuss the essay “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was a vital influence to his fellow countrymen during the Jacksonian era, a crucial period regarding the emergence of distinctive American character. This is probably his most famous essay, containing most of the essential lessons he had to impart, and the title itself reflecting the overriding message of all his teachings. It is the message which says that the highest virtue comes from depending on no other but the guidance of the soul.
Not only to his fellow Americans, Emerson was also an inspiration to many around the world. His philosophy of Transcendentalism was expressed so beautifully in his writings that they touched readers at all levels, as well as the many who attended his public lectures. Thus I justify my choice. Like all of Emerson’s essays, we have a collection of aphorisms, interspersed with personal musings and reflections. This kind of essay is always hard to summarize, for the impact lies not with the plot or structure, but instead relies on isolated bursts of meaning and profundity.
The pervasive message is, however, that self-reliance is the only means towards truth and authenticity. For convenience we may introduce two categories, firstly, what self-reliance means to the individual, and secondly, what it entails regarding the interaction with society. Unlike many mystical writers, Emerson does not merely indulge in self realization, but always has in mind the obligation extant towards society. This twin concern is reflected in the following: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (Emerson 23). In the first instance he tells us that we cannot be allowed to be swayed by the crowd, and must hold steadfast to our genuine intuitions. But this does not mean that we cut ourselves off from the crowd. Our solitude must always be in the midst of the crowd. Hermitism is nothing part of Emerson’s philosophy. Again he says: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius” (Ibid 19).
What seems to be self indulgence at first sight is not really so. The aim is to reach out to all souls, but the only way to it, says Emerson, is to trust the truth that emerges from the private center. To this end he is totally opposed to all forms of affected virtue, those which carry social distinction and recognition. In this sense he calls society a conspiracy against all men. “It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs” (Ibid 21). The genuine person is perforce a non-conformist. He pays no heed to consistency, which he calls the “hobgoblin of small minds” (Ibid 24).
If the above describes the individual in regard to society, then there is also the other aspect, which is individual is regard to himself. The individual must trust his inner voice, or his native intuition. In this regard Emerson states that the only way to live authentically, and true to oneself, is to live in the present moment. Nature shows the way. “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones;” he muses, “they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day” (Ibid 28). But man postpones his living in the present because he is too inclined to remember.
Then again, “heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future” (Ibid). Memory itself he describes as a corpse. It reflects a past mode of having lived, and as such has no power inherent in it. Power only “resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim” (Ibid 29). This is where truth and being is. And peace resides only in such authentic existence. In a recent and radical assessment of Emerson, Michael Lopez emphasizes the spur to action contained in the writings.
In his book Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century, he is addressing the dichotomy of action and contemplation found in Emerson’s work, and where the proposition is that authentic existence lies at the center of the two. Lopez complains that conventional scholarship is frozen at this point, and thus interprets Transcendentalism as little more than a mental mood. Such analysis can do little more than offer Emerson as a museum piece, as representative of a bygone era. “The problem is not that defining Emerson in these terms is wrong,” he says, “only that it is radically incomplete” (Lopez 9).
In order to complete the picture he recovers an element of activism from Emerson’s concept of self-reliance. He explains the source of this active power as derived from friction. The friction is between world and the self, the two poles of being which are constantly opposed to each other in Emerson’s philosophy. Self-reliance is also God reliance, and Lopez identifies and inherent contradiction here. But instead of seeing this as a problem, he makes it out to be the source of creative energy. To live authentically is always to be at the center of this paradox.
Authentic living is the goal, and in this sense all universal ideologies are to be discarded. This is why Lopez is averse to call Emerson a Transcendentalist, and also refuses to class his as a reformer. Apart from the immediacy of living, and thus being true to oneself, there is no other goal. George Kateb assesses Emerson in a similar fashion, in his book Emerson and Self Reliance, but settles on the other side of the divide. Instead of aiming at useful living, he sees self-reliance as an “intellectual method”.
If one hopes to be self reliant, one must first train the mind in this direction, and thus it entails a “steady effort to think one’s thoughts and think them through” (Kateb 31). He is trying to present self-reliance as a premise to democracy. Therefore, not only at the atomic level of living, self reliance leads to the democratic form of government, which is assumed to be the ideal form. This end cannot be realized by activism or reform. For any effort in this direction must be through conformity, and thus a necessary deviation results from the principle of self-reliance.
So Kateb opines, “[S]ystematic association is a disfigurement, a loss of integrity” (Ibid 173). The elected representatives cannot be trusted to bring, or to maintain, democracy. Not unless the active principle emerges from character itself, and when the character is formed on the principle of self-reliance. From the strength of character one is able to distinguish between authentic desire and the corrupting influences of society. In this way all compromising influences are weeded out at the atomic level. The self-reliant individual is a democratic citizen by the very dint of his being a nonconformist.
He will constantly question the legitimacy of the state and authority, which is the key activity within democracy. The fundamental aim of democracy is to demystify authority, and to relocate the locus of government to the individual. In this way the bedrock to democracy is the self-reliant individual. Kateb is analyzing Emerson as being a key to the establishment of American democracy. Both Lopez and Kateb offer assessments of Emerson that contain profound truths. The only drawback is that they render Emerson a Utilitarian in the final analysis. Lopez is thinking primarily in terms of material power.
This is why he is able to describe Emerson’s thinking as a mechanical engine, with moving parts, and whose friction against each other produces workable power. His stated goal, of “useful living” seems humble enough, until we realize that he wants to make it run by mechanical means. Kateb’s assessment is the more sublime one. When he describes democracy as issuing out of the self-reliant character, he seems to be speaking from a mystical point of view, and in a spirit akin to that of Emerson. But democracy too becomes a monolithic and rigid institution in the end, which the Emersonian nonconformist will try to resist and oppose.
Emerson himself was very aware that his words are liable to such misinterpretations as we find in Lopez and Kateb. In the essay itself he says: “To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is” (Emerson 29). He is pointing out that even the very word “reliance” is suggesting utility, and this is why he is eager to erase this suggestion, and searches for a more apt expression. In conclusion, Emerson presents to us a persuasive argument in favor of relying on one’s inner truth, and that we should reject every kind of external or material dependence.
It is a mystical tract, and therefore must be interpreted carefully, for mysticism is always open to misinterpretation. Michael Lopez and George Kateb derive profound insights from teaching of Emerson as found in his essay “Self-Reliance”. But there are also serious errors in their judgments, and which need to be carefully pointed out. The common error is that they propose Utilitarian ends to the Emersonian aphorisms, and any close reading shows that the author is against all such tendencies.