The Difficulty of Emersonian ‘Self-Reliance’

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.

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14 Responses to The Difficulty of Emersonian ‘Self-Reliance’

  1. nicksalute says:

    I must admit that this was a truly intriguing and thought-provoking analysis of Emerson’s Self Reliance. I feel that you explicitly addressed the shortcomings of his ideology. Upon my initial examination of the essay, I was sold on his beliefs. The notion of self-reliance has always appealed to me and my particular lifestyle, and complete intellectual independence is a virtue that I wish to someday acquire. With that being said, I am guilty of paralleling ALL of Emerson’s views to mine, even when the two didn’t coincide.
    I fully agree with your point that “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.” This is an exceptionally important piece of the self-reliance puzzle that Emerson seems to blatantly overlook; perhaps the issue is indeed that there is no definitive criteria for “harming another,” and therefore elaborating on this section would be a problematic task.
    In addition, forming the assumption that individuals are fully capable of living individually and peacefully seems to be a naïve one. The struggle for self-interests has proved throughout history to act as a violent and intense perusal; this makes the idea of serene coexistence a little hard to swallow.
    Despite my agreement with your critique, overall, I feel that Emerson stood by his ideology, even when his ideology was difficult to stand by. For that, I respect him. But in the grand scheme of things, committing to an Emerson-style society could certainly raise a number of issues.
    Great job!

  2. This comment is from krason2:

    Great post. Like yourself, I can see the pros and cons on the idea of individualism. The motivation of your own successful upbringing is certainly inspirational, and the value of hard work is a great trait to have. However, individualism creates a society that I believe that could be harmful in the long run. The Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes touches on the subject of how the state of nature is the “war of every man against every man.” Thus creating a harsh society that people begin to search for a better form of living by implementing the values stated in the Leviathan to achieve peace. I also believe that individualism can possibly be a key player to inequality. It creates this ruthless competition that encourages people to trample over others which results in a winner and a loser in the end. I believe that it is human nature to be connected to one another and not this idea of creating boundaries and separating ourselves from others. The truth is, humans are happier when we are connected and have strong bridges with one another. A supported/cooperative society will be a prosperous society. Thriving for freedom will not be achieved through separation.

  3. I completely agree with Dr. Kirkpatrick’s previous comment about how individualism can create winners and losers. The author mentions how the idea of harm to someone would have to be defined in order to make checks on this structure. I certainly think it could be considered harmful to take up more resources than necessary. For example, if the upper-class hold most of the resources in society, the lower-class could be left to starve. This could lead to stealing, in order to survive. Stealing would also be considered harmful, but should the thief be punished by those who would do harm to him/her? Which side is right or wrong? I’m going to paraphrase, but Emerson says something along the lines of the family being an ever expanding group without bounds. Maybe if humanity was considered one family, everyone would be taken care of by each other, and the people would feel a sense of duty to taking care of humanity as a whole, instead of hoarding necessary resources for greed. I certainly think it would be easier for everyone to cultivate their individual self, if needs essential to living were met.

  4. cacunni1 says:

    In American society, it is clear that much like Emerson’s Self-Reliance, the individual is held supreme over community efforts. Nothing gets an American more excited than an underdog fighting his way to this top based on sheer will power. However, I think the state of American society attests to how fraught with error Emerson’s argument is with regards to self-reliance.

    If you question my skepticism regarding American self-reliance, look no further than this video.

    Yes, as college students in a variety of different classrooms, we’ve all seen the statistics in this video. We can argue over the minute details of the statistics, but at its core, this video demonstrates that American society isn’t working. The obsession with the impoverished orphan beating all odds and rising to the top is unrealistic at best, and an outright lie at worst.

    I think this post accurately points out the real issue with individualism, which is that human beings are not always innately good. In fact, a system of individualism rewards the individual with the least moral standards. Not only does the system of individualism deify the self, it in turn gives success to those that do good only for themselves.

    Even then, how good is the good that we do only for ourselves? You could argue that “money and success buy happiness”, but there is a reason that isn’t a popular phrase. Without the support of family, friends, and a community, an individual is lonely. There isn’t any way around that. Establishing healthy connections and reliance on others is just as essential to happiness as material success and self-development.

    • Derek says:

      I’ve learned that Capitalism doesn’t work without using the Constitution properly (which is individualism rights of the minority), and that sympathy is required for economics to work (having a general concern for your neighbor or society at large).

      I think Emerson used society to form his own individualism (how else do you do it? He obviously took societies lessons and helped frame them for himself and didn’t take one source as gospel). For example, you can read different world religions and come to your own conclusion on theocracy (critical thinking). I don’t think he wants to re-invent the wheel. America has always been a struggle between society and individualism (Good old red vs blue) it’s knowing when to give up yourself for something greater or stick to your principles. I think he is arguing being the best you can be by following a moral compass that has to be boiled down and aligned don’t just go with mass hysteria. This piece wasn’t created in a vacuum.

      I agree though that pure individualism without education of society creates an imbalance, but I think he took the individualism side because changing society is a lot harder than changing from within.

  5. abdelrafat says:

    I enjoyed reading your post. I’ve always enjoyed the concept of the American dream. The false conception that if you work hard and stay self-motivated, there is no limit to your success. The flaws in this reasoning are evident; atomistic individualism only distances ourselves from others. This success vs. virtue becomes a separation from opposition to community. Individuals who have become successful blame the losers for their failure and this is simply not logical. Jennifer L. Hoshschild wrote Facing up to the American Dream: Race, Class and the Soul of the Nation. She writes; “I have argued that the American dream need not be individualistic in the narrow sense, given that one can under its rubric pursue success for one’s family or community as well as for oneself. But it is highly individual, in that it leads one to focus on people’s behaviors rather than on economic processes, environmental constraints, or political structures as the casual explanation for social orderings. That focus is not itself a flaw; it is simply an epistemological choice with methodological implication for the study of American politics. But to the degree that the focus carries a moral message, it point to a weakness at the very heart of the dream.” The pursuit of the American dream has blurred our vision away from community and plagued us with tunnel vision of ourselves.

    • Derek says:

      I don’t see how if everyone picked up their own talent (trusted themselves) that society is negatively affected.

      When successful people blame those without for being lazy and worthless, it’s not really the system as much as it is human nature. In society the name of the game is money (social convention). Emerson says step away from that and be rich in your own way. Comparing yourself to others disrespects you as a person. Some people are better at things than others and thank god that’s what society was meant to be. Otherwise, that’s like saying someone born with one arm should live his life comparing himself to two armed people. In martial arts, having only one arm can be beneficial compared to two.

      It’s about rising above your culture, see it for what it is, and improving it. Emerson says the best way to do that is from within (lead by example). Society is not going to cater to an individual maybe a minority group these days, but when I get into trouble it is I who has to deal with it not all the people I self identify with. Society doesn’t come into my house to celebrate my birthday, I celebrate my birthday.

      Don’t get me wrong, having social mobility helps you be yourself. A black woman lesbian (just going off stereotypes of someone really marginalized) has to deal with her everyday life more so than society is going to do something for her, she has to trust herself that she is good as she is and America protects that individual in theory (not quite so in practice due to history). That’s why he argues for living in principle.

  6. fallenstar66 says:

    In reading over your post, you seem to nicely put some of my problems when reading this article. Though I am sold on the idea of people looking to their own self-interests and rights, you run into a problem, like mentioned, of when do you draw the line? Do you refuse to help the homeless person on the street asking for food because it takes food away from you? I am sure most of us would say no, but in reading through “Self-Reliance”, it almost felt like he would say “yes”, and this is where my biggest struggle came in. I feel that if someone were to commit to true “self-reliance” it can lead to a slippery slope of exceptional-ism. I have unfortunately met people so involved with paving their own “American dream”, that they do not see the damage that their self-interest has wrought on the community and to others. They sit there and say that “others should work hard and they will pull themselves out of poverty”, to try and diffuse responsibility. Someone can work hard everyday of their lives and still never make it out of poverty because of the type of society that has been created that will not offer breaks to those who need it. But, here in lies another struggle that many face: “How much do you help someone to get out of poverty or hard-times especially when helping them goes against your own self-interest?”. I think this is what Emerson was trying to answer, but maybe due to the time-frame and political atmosphere of his time, it may have come across as harsh and left may things unaddressed. I would be interested to know if he would respond in the same way after looking at how much self-reliance has been twisted to allow for others to create the society where others are pushed aside and forgotten because they do not fit into our own self-interest.

  7. This is an interesting post and many of the comments show that the notion of individualism is a difficult concept to wrap our heads around. It is a struggle that human beings face on a day to day basis. Do you help the person asking for money on a street corner? The obvious response is, “If I could help him I would.” A person needing help and we are presented with an opportunity to help, but instead we drive by. Why? Is it this idea that we all struggle, but we work for what we earn? In class, we wrote the characteristics of the “classic liberal” on the board. There were ideas like self interest, liberty, individualism, and “picking yourself up by your bootstraps”. With that being said, I contemplated how close we are as a society since we use these words or messages to describe the pillars of America. It would seem that the concepts of Capitalism and Democracy would appeal to the individual. America is competitive and as other comments have said, “this creates winners and losers”. America is one of the closest societies that promote the individual.

  8. gchanneyla says:

    I must admit your post really brought up good points and really makes one look at ourselves and evaluate what we contribute to our communities. We are also quick at protecting our own needs before the needs of others, therefore I must agree with fallenstar66’s take on what self-reliance truly means. Capitalism is a system that has truly divided us and makes us a bit more reluctant to help, but it is also a system that motivates some to pursue their dreams. I think self-reliance is an inner battle where you must decide on what kind of contributions are worth making.

  9. cindylyon says:

    Great post! I know that I’m a week late commenting, but I knew I had to comment when I saw the title – “The Difficulty of Ermersonian ‘Self-Reliance.'” As I’ve already mentioned in class, Emerson was a difficult read for me personally. I found myself scribbling all over my marginalia with things like “ugh!” “:(” and “insensitive.” Now, I know that I can be a little kumbaya at times, but what I appreciate about your post was the perspective it gave me. It’s not always easy to remember that the texts we are dissecting are hundreds (or even sometimes thousands) of years old and we can’t always expect them to resonate with us. I’m sure what we write on this blog today will not apply to society in 3055. I admire the fact that you took the time to mention that. I do, however, feel as though these kinds of texts (i.e. those belonging to The Enlightenment and thereafter) do a lot more in shaping and molding us than we might give them credit. These thinkers and these books have already made us who we are today. So I feel as though it’s important to critically think about not only what they mean but what they could mean for us. Thank you for your post.

    • alphaomegawords says:

      In reflecting on your comment, “these kinds of texts (i.e. those belonging to The Enlightenment and thereafter) do a lot more in shaping and molding us than we might give them credit”, I was reminded of an idea that a friend of mine references. The basics of it are that we are all ‘marinating in our surroundings’ and the idea is that just as a marinade is used to season, flavor, moisten, etc., the people and ideas around us impact us, for better or worse. You make an interesting point about it being “more… than we might give them credit” for because I wonder how much of these ideas we uncritically intake. It’s an idea that is also difficult to deal with because there is so much in life’s experiences that happens and it’s simply difficult to attempt to critically engage it all.

      These influences are, in part, what starts at base or grass roots levels and ones experiences in life ‘influence and mold’ us, shaping how we view and interpret those experiences and the world generally. The individualism or personal liberty that Emerson lays out, as I mentioned in my original post, is difficult to work out in practice. On the other hand, so is the other extreme of absolute communitarianism. The more I engage the various authors and texts, the more I’m struck with the need of both in varying degrees in all kinds of circumstances. Additionally, there may be additional ideas, philosophies, world views that need to be introduced to temper the inherent binary between these two ‘camps’.

  10. fern1007 says:

    Thank you for your insightful post on Self-Reliance. I would just like to add that people who subscribe to Emerson’s philosophy/people who would be considered libertarians believe in pursuing their own happiness believe as strongly in protecting the civil liberties of others, and in the belief of the non aggression principle. Emerson’s argument doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
    Emerson states, “… because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it…” In order for a free people to enjoy making their own decisions on religion, work, family these same free people must stay vigilant in protecting these freedoms from those who would curtail individual rights. This is why libertarians have been on the right side, for example, of LGBT rights. While other political parties have had to “evolve” on the issue of gay marriage people who believe in the sanctity of civil liberties and civil rights have been working to secure equal rights for others.
    Self-reliance is not about harming others or encroaching on their rights it is about living peaceably with each individual getting to decide what is best and right from themselves.

  11. ethanmolinar says:

    Emerson claims your duty to yourself is more important than your duty to society. My understanding is that a good society must be built by good individuals. By honoring yourself and attempting to achieve your full potential you manage to better the society that you are a member of. This is echoed by the phrase “secure your own oxygen mask first”. Self-interest can lead to tensions as members of a society compete for limited resources. The tension of the needs and desires of one individual are nearly always in conflict with another’s needs and desires. This competition between individuals can be either positive or negative. Individuals such as the iconoclast first great American capitalists’ Carnegie or Rockefeller provide an example of how self-interest can be positive. These men established themselves first as titans of industry and created their own massive individual wealth before spending the later parts of their lives redistributing their own wealth voluntarily in order to improve the society from which they came. This tradition is furthered today by billionaires such as Warren Buffet or Bill Gates. Emerson understands that each individual will naturally take their own needs as priority over the needs of the group. However, once your own needs are met that is when you are best able to assist others.

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