Keep Colorado Journalism, Local. Donate to PULP.

Self-Reliance: The four exercises of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last updated:

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…

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 …

Thanks for reading this short excerpt from the paid post! Fancy buying it to read all of it?

Read now, pay later

This article
Self-Reliance: The four exercises of Ralph Waldo Emerson
0.24
USD
Powered by

Zeen Social Icons