Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance holds an interesting place in American literature. On one hand, it seems to nicely dovetail with the enigmatic ‘American spirit’ of ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ and ‘rugged individualism.’ On the other hand, it venerates the individual self, setting a stage for high degrees of subjectivism, self-interest, and exclusionism. While reflecting on how to respond to the essay for this post, I was struck by the tenor that Emerson used throughout. Some of the dissonance could be the gap of over one hundred and fifty years from when Emerson lived to the present. That is no small obstacle to overcome, but since there have been myriads of scholars and literary critics engaging with this and other related Emersonian texts, I think we can, at least generally, operate with a framework to understand Emerson.
On the surface, one could easily want to run with the themes found in Self-Reliance and strike out on their own American dream. It seems that Emerson advocated for such desires and actions. In one metaphor, he describes the freeing of one’s consciousness from the grip of society to that of breaking out of jail. The metaphor describes a proactive force, not a passive release. This is something brought on violently. This, of course, begs a question since the metaphor of jail describes a punitive measure employed by society for an extreme and/or repeated violation against one or more other(s) within the given community (local, state, national, etc.): what did you do to the detriment of another or others?
Some advocates would say that the individualism proposed by Emerson would curb itself when such ideas or actions would bring harm to others. However, how is an individual, let alone a society, to decide what meets the criteria of ‘harming another’? This is a slippery slope that Emerson doesn’t ever bring to resolution, but seems to be the giant pink elephant in the room, as it were. The tension of the needs and desires of one individual are nearly always in conflict with another’s needs and desires, let alone the larger community and communities that one could find themselves.
Benjamin Anastas wrote an article entitled “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’” for the New York Times Magazine wherein he develops his critique of “Self-Reliance” around Emerson’s endowing the self with divinity. Anastas wrote:
“it’s a weakness that Emerson acknowledged: if the only measure of greatness is how big an iconoclast you are, then there really is no difference between coming up with the theory of relativity, plugging in an electric guitar, leading a civil rights movement or spending great gobs of your own money to fly a balloon across the Atlantic. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson addresses this potentially fatal flaw to his thinking with a principle he calls “the law of consciousness.” (It is not convincing.) Every one of us has two confessionals, he writes. At the first, we clear our actions in the mirror (a recapitulation of the dictum “trust thyself”). At the second, we consider whether we’ve fulfilled our obligations to our families, neighbors, communities and — here Emerson can’t resist a bit of snark — our cats and dogs. Which confessional is the higher one? To whom do we owe our ultimate allegiance? It’s not even a contest.”
The ‘divinity’ of individual people is fraught with all manner of inconsistencies, but analysis of them is well beyond the scope of this post. This law of consciousness is too reliant (pun intended) on this illusion of deity of the self and what seems to be a glaringly obvious shorting-coming in his assumptions: an inherent goodness of the self and others. The annals of history are rife with examples of self-interest that originated on purely personal grounds, but later bore fruit that led to the harm and destruction of others.
While some may argue that this was never the intent of Emerson and other individualists, it is no less a catastrophic problem with the philosophy and especially so as a political theory. People will willingly borrow ideas or theories from other as it suits them without themselves subscribing to the theory. Ironically, this is an inherent quality, for better and worse, in much academic scholarship and something one always needs to be mindful of.