Thoughts on Self Reliance by Emerson

Pick up any book of quotes, or one of those ubiquitous quote-a-day calendars and you are sure to stumble upon Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is one of those authors who everyone quotes but few actually read. Even if you are unfamiliar with his body of work you’ve most likely heard the famous line, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” This comes from his essay, Self Reliance.

I came across an author recently who was extolling the virtues of reading Emerson. He even went so far as to claim he was one of the wisest philosophers he had read. I went through a brief period of being infatuated with the ideas of the Transcendentalists in college but had not given the movement, or its leader, much thought since. So I dug out my college text and reread Self Reliance. Much of it still held appeal, though some of Emerson’s thinking seems lacking to me now. Over the next three posts I’ll attempt to show where I think he gets it right and where he may be over-reacting to prevailing traditions of his time.
Emerson (1803 – 1882) was an American philosopher, essayist, and poet who is best remembered for championing the Transcendentalist movement. He was a strong proponent of individualism and a critic of the pressures of society. He published dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across America throughout his lifetime.

While Self Reliance has no section headings, the essay falls into three basics sections. The first can be summarized as the importance of self reliance. He stresses individual experience over any knowledge gained from books or teachers. This is the core of self reliance, that you rely on your own thoughts and ideas and not simply regurgitate what you have read or heard from others. I can certainly see the appeal of this kind of individualism, especially when you consider the world in which Emerson lived.

Emerson’s America was still laboring under the specter of self doubt in its own intellectual and structural integrity. Many in America, if not most, still considered themselves essentially European. There had yet to be a truly American philosophical movement. For Emerson to place such a high regard in ones own ideas rather than the older traditions of Europe makes perfect sense.

However, to discount all the wisdom of the past in favor of current thought, which while Emerson does not expressly state as his aim, is nonetheless the natural extension of this philosophy, seems folly. Emerson wants us to trust ourselves and that if we are to reply on other’s judgment rather than our own we are somehow being cowardly. What he does not take into account is that our own thoughts, ideas and morals need a formative structure.

Our inner instincts are not always correct, many would argue that they are rarely correct. Humanity needs a foundation of values around which to base its systems. Emerson discounts this entirely, believing instead that we should apply our own standards to what we see rather than any societal norms.

“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature . . . the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”

This is the beginnings of our current moral ambiguity. According to Emerson there is no real right or wrong; objective-ism is being replaced by moral relativism. Again, I sympathize with a desire to break from certain stale traditions as America was just starting to spread its wings, but taken to its logical conclusion Emerson’s idea of individualism leads us down, what I feel, is a dangerous road.

On the other hand, he has somethings to say that I feel can be applied to modern political realities from which we could learn quite a bit. I’d like to point out one area where I think Emerson has something significant to teach the modern 21st century citizen of the world.

Emerson’s idea of consistency has to do with the inability of some people to allow their views to evolve. He believes that striving to remain consistent over time to views you held in the past saps you of creativity and doesn’t let your true personality come through. He goes on to say that, even worse, are those who belong to a groups whose opinions you share and to which you remain utterly consistent.

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. — `Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — 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.

One need look no farther than modern politicians to see this dynamic at work. Too often the public scorns the political leader who deems it necessary to change his mind due to the course of events. While on the one hand we want politicians to stand for something and not simply twist in the winds of public opinion, we also need individual thinkers capable of analyzing the world as it shows itself and make conclusions.

As America deals with the intensity of the Tea Party and purity tests on both sides of the aisle, we could do worse than heed Emerson’s advice and look for men of character not simply consistency. It is men of character- character which can only be developed through an honest accounting of views and opinions held in youth that may need to be changed over time- who move the world forward.

Character, reality, reminds you of nothing else; it takes place of the whole creation. The man must be so much, that he must make all circumstances indifferent. Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design; — and posterity seem to follow his steps as a train of clients. A man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as, Monachism, of the Hermit Antony; the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson. Scipio, Milton called “the height of Rome”; and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.

Emerson’s final section of this famous essay deals with four social areas where we need self reliance: religion, which fears creativity; culture, which faults individualism; the arts, which teach us only to imitate; and society, which wrongly values progress. As I said before, I feel that much of Emerson’s essay is a product of its time. His critique of religion is less valid today when there is a much greater amount of freedom in terms of denominational variety. His knock on culture and art is largely due to the fact that America was still trying to get out from under the shadow of Europe’s influence. However, his thoughts around society still hold true today.

Emerson argues against the style of progress that creates ever new ways and new technologies and yet leaves us fundamentally no better off. He uses the example of the watch. While a watch certainly makes telling time more convenient, we also lose the ability to read the sun’s path across the sky. Therefore according to his reasoning we are no better off. He makes sense here, to a point.

The harm of the improved machinery may compensate its good. Hudson and Behring accomplished so much in their fishing-boats, as to astonish Parry and Franklin, whose equipment exhausted the resources of science and art. Galileo, with an opera-glass, discovered a more splendid series of celestial phenomena than any one since. Columbus found the New World in an undecked boat. It is curious to see the periodical disuse and perishing of means and machinery, which were introduced with loud laudation a few years or centuries before. The great genius returns to essential man. We reckoned the improvements of the art of war among the triumphs of science, and yet Napoleon conquered Europe by the bivouac, which consisted of falling back on naked valor, and disencumbering it of all aids.

There is a lot of value in technological progress. As a teacher I certainly do not want to go back to the days of slate and chalk. However, we can become so enamored of our technological toys that we forget the core truths. Just because technological progress is available to us, we do not have to take advantage of all of it.
Without a foundation in the basic realities and truths of our common history as citizens of western civilization, then the bells and whistles of progress can not add, but only subtract, from our collective advancement.