Self-Reliance: The four exercises of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idealism remains an intrinsically baffling strain of thought to for readers interpret even today.  Yet Emerson’s intellectual stock has never been valued higher. Emersonian thought has become the model of the independent American mind heroically transcending personal and social limitations to liberate its genius.
The concept of self-reliance, perhaps Emerson’s most potent and misunderstood concept, constructed in the essay Self-Reliance, is not the philosophy of rugged individualism, nor is it the ideological doctrine of strict libertarianism.  Self-reliance is always a method or an instrument, presenting itself in different masks depending on the era and circumstance.  It is a cookbook for making lucid universal objective truth through the act of finding the totality of a universe in oneself, seeing oneself as a creator.

Self-reliant individuals accept that personality grows from the root of society and relation to others; however, in the same actualization resolves personality must be extinguished to grasp universality and their full human potential.  The essential aspect of the person is found in solitude, devoid of personality.  In his essay, Self-Reliance, Emerson outlines four exercises for achieving self-reliance.  

First, an individual may reach ultimate reality through nonconformity.  Nonconformity is the exercise of devotion to individuality.  The nonconformist exercise taps into an individual’s passionate capacity, sublimating the rich spectrum of emotions into self-compassion and self-reliance, bringing her and him closer to a fundamental inner-centeredness.  Nonconformity appeals to an emotional temperament.

Nonconformity and Compassion

Ralph Waldo Emerson makes it explicit from the start of Self-Reliance that “Whoso be a man, must be a nonconformist.  He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.”  In other words, even the concept of goodness cannot be taken for granted and should be subject to scrutiny.  And if what the normative culture calls ‘good’ shows itself as not corresponding with the individual’s internal impression of good, measured emotionally in terms of whether it promotes self-compassion, then the status quo should be rejected.  This principle is played out in Self-Reliance when Emerson recounts, “I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued advisor who was wont with opportune me with the dear old doctrines of the Church.  On my saying, ‘What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?’ my friend suggested – ‘But these impulses may be from below, not from above.’  I replied, ‘They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.’” This is to say the motto of Emersonian nonconformity reads ‘When in America, Kill the King.  Follow what is Deep’.  And in concrete language Emerson concludes, “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.”  The exercise of nonconformity maximizes self-reliance by cultivating a sense of self-love in the individual that transcends normative culture.

Second, an individual becomes universal through the exercise of selfless action and cutting ties with materialistic habits.  The institutions of society, as well as those of family and friendship become problematic for the will to self-reliance in that these entanglements create the relative mirrors by which individuals see themselves and construct identity that obscures what is essentially individual, namely, our duty carried out in solitude.  The exercise of ‘letting go’ appeals to a pragmatic temperament.

Society and Selfless Action

Society is self-serving; and Emerson asserts “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood [and womanhood] of every one of its members.” Society urges individuals to act in preservation of self to conserve traditions, and these structures inhibit an individual’s ability to be self-reliant.  To act selflessly is not to act without regard to one’s well being; selfless action is to act and behave toward others and the environment as you would if there was no egotistic-self relative to them and it, to normal, to consistent.  Even the institution of family must be repainted before the individual can become self-reliant in society.  Emerson instructs, for this exercise, let go of all ties to society and tell friends and family “I cannot break myself any longer for you.  If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier.  If you cannot, I will seek to deserve that you should.  I will not hide my tastes or aversions… If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you or myself… I do this not selfishly but humbly and truly… Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no laws less than the eternal law.  I will have no covenants but proximities.”  The individual has let go of social entanglement, narrowed awareness to immediate relations and duties, interacts with other individuals in various contexts, but now exercises self-reliance through selfless action.

Third, an individual cuts through the veil of ignorance and constructs inward self-reliance by relentlessly seeking the unbound creativity seen in youth.  What becomes True is not tradition but what is Deep.  Youth brings no limitation to imagination and creativity; Experience only testifies to impossibility.  There is no wall the youth cannot walk through.  The exercise of proliferating youthful imagination appeals to the philosophical and intellectual temperament.

Youth and Inward Revolution

Reconnecting with the creative condition of youth, for Emerson, is one of the most potent means for achieving self-reliance.  Emerson professes, in contrast to the youth, “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I Think,’ ‘I Am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.”  For Emerson the object of youth is creativity and inquiry.  With a view of reality unobstructed by the structures of tradition, youth seeks answers to the obstacles it faces with synthetic thought, namely, the solution of combining what is understood to be how nature works and inner instinct.  Emerson prescribes his reader the exercise of adopting radical inward malleability in daily thought and criticism.  But more than that, Emerson reminds the experienced and influential not to make the mistake of letting their ambitious imagination decay and “think that the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me.  Hark! In the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic.  It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries.  Bashful or bold then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.”  For Emerson, experience without growth is hardly worth having lived for.  And the principle underlying Emerson’s anthem for the youth and call for inward revolution culminates in his assertion that “This one fact the world hates; that the soul becomes; for that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to shame, confounds the saint with the rouge, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside…  Greatness appeals to the future.”  So, through youthful curiosity with perception focused inward and cultivated creative and critical capacities, the individual becomes self-reliant. 

Fourth, the individual achieves self-reliance through joining the momentum of the multiverse.  This is accomplished through autonomous adherence to the laws of nature.  In mastering one’s own mind through principle the individual becomes unified with their genius; and in the company of our genius the underlying cosmological constants become visible and thus the universe of the mind synchronizes with the energy of the multiverse.  The object of genius is freedom through inward discipline of the mind.  Genius appeals to the mystical and scientific temperament.

Genius and Principle

All thinkers at a point in their inward exploration tackle the question “What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?”  And Emerson explains that “This inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.”  So in this way an individual exercises his or her genius by choosing their principle and fully living it out.  Emerson further exclaims, “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.  Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the last Judgment.”  This is to profess that where it is instinct and spontaneity that serves as the cornerstone interconnecting our universes, to exercise principled instinct is to tap into the multiversal consciousness.  Emerson concludes, “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide…  The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”  So through following instinct in principle the individual learns to trust their inner judge and create themselves – self-reliance.

Self-Reliance, for Emerson, is then fully articulated by the collective exercise of shifting vision inward toward universal truth, of revolution without movement, the proliferation of genius in youth, as well as illumination of human potential; to topple the ruins of a paradigm dominated by the traditions of obsolete institutions, illusory economies, dead religions, and hollow offices.

Bio and Other Important Works:

According to poets.org, “American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. After studying at Harvard and teaching for a brief time, Emerson entered the ministry. He was appointed to the Old Second Church in his native city, but soon became an unwilling preacher. Unable in conscience to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper after the death of his nineteen-year-old wife of tuberculosis, Emerson resigned his pastorate in 1831.

Known in the local literary circle as “The Sage of Concord,” Emerson became the chief spokesman for Transcendentalism, the American philosophic and literary movement. Centered in New England during the 19th century, Transcendentalism was a reaction against scientific rationalism.

Emerson’s first book, Nature (1836), is perhaps the best expression of his Transcendentalism, the belief that everything in our world—even a drop of dew—is a microcosm of the universe. His concept of the Over-Soul—a Supreme Mind that every man and woman share—allowed Transcendentalists to disregard external authority and to rely instead on direct experience.

Emerson wrote a poetic prose, ordering his essays by recurring themes and images. His poetry, on the other hand, is often called harsh and didactic. Among Emerson’s most well known works are Essays, First and Second Series (1841, 1844). The First Series includes Emerson’s famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” in which the writer instructs his listener to examine his relationship with Nature and God, and to trust his own judgment above all others.

Emerson’s other volumes include Poems (1847), Representative Men, The Conduct of Life (1860), and English Traits (1865). His best-known addresses are The American Scholar (1837) and The Divinity School Address, which he delivered before the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School.”

The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson further observes, “Following the Civil War, Emerson continued to lecture energetically publishing Society and Solitude (1870) and the verse collection May Day and Other Pieces (1867).  In 1872 his health began to fail, and after a final trip to Europe he settled into a quieter routine as his memory gradually weakened.  Ralph Waldo Emerson died of pneumonia in 1882.”

Self-Reliance is available for free online at: http://www.math.dartmouth.edu/~doyle/docs/self/self.pdf

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