On Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” Essay

Ralph Waldo Emerson is said to have been a brilliant thinker as well as a writer. I’m not so sure.

I read his essay on Self-Reliance several times and several times while I was taking notes. While he does have some insightful words, most of them, to me, were repeats of the same theme – don’t trust Civilization, trust yourself only.

I agree with his points about everyone having a universal truth inside them and no one knows what they can do until they do it, but his words on self-reliance are a bit self-defeating.

If we consider ourselves civilized, it must include helping others and working on becoming one civilized group rather than Emerson’s insistence that only being self-reliant and isolationist (not that he used that word exactly) will make Humanity prosper.

I can appreciate his words: “I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have an intrinsic right.” No one should have to pay anything for the right to live, love, breathe, and prosper, not in money, not in blood, not in tears. Having said that, though, he writes that “Nature is not slow to equip us in the prison uniform of the party to which we all adhere.” A prison? I suppose that some beliefs can become prisons, if you let them. As a wise man once said, “There is, in all things, a rule of moderation, including the rule of moderation itself.”

Emerson asks “Why should we assume the faults of our friend, or wife, or father, or child because they sit around our hearth or are said to have the same blood?” That’s awfully close to “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Are we our brothers’ keepers? To a point, yes. Helping someone is not enabling them or doing for them, but teaching them to do for themselves. Sometimes, that help is in the form of listening to someone else rant on or complain or just talk. Humans aren’t solitary creatures by instinct, so thinking in terms of ‘self-’ anything isn’t helping our psyche. We need the contact of others whether they think as we do or not, whether we agree with them on many points or not. We can take the opportunity to learn from our neighbours and include them in our civilization, or we can push them away because “We need to be self-reliant.” Can you really accept help from someone else if you’re self-reliant?

The kind of self-reliance that Emerson writes of sounds a great deal like pride to me. Do it by yourself. Don’t rely on help from others. “No one knows what they can do until they try,” says Emerson. That’s true, but not everyone can do everything that needs doing to ensure survival. Not in this day and age and, I think, even in Emerson’s day. Emerson, from what I can understand would have us go back to the days of bearskins and stone knives, the days before technology, however primitive, began. You see, anything after that would require, at the very least, bartering something you have for something, like iron or steel knives, that you feel you need. Iron-mongering, smelting, blacksmithing are all trades that take a few years, at the very least, to master well enough to create your own items. You’d also have to add mining to that, because it’s difficult to smelt fresh air. Metals are needed, metals mined from the ground. Could you do that and still have time to grow your own food, tend animals for security or sustenance, make a loom in order to make your own cloth and then create the patterns needed to make clothes? Who will put your supper on the table? Who will make the bread and cheese for your lunch? For that matter, can you make the pottery needed for cooking and eating? Can you make utensils or will you survive on ‘medieval feast’ kind of table manners?

Emerson was wrong, I believe. In order to have any kind of civilization, you need to have co-operation between people. You need to start thinking of those people as your ‘brother’ in order to survive in peace and prosperity. You need to help and be helped.

Emerson says that no one ‘can bring you peace except yourself.’ True, but with the assistance of friends, it’s easier to do when you’re not stressed about the basic needs of Life – Needing to belong, Needing shelter, Needing food and clean water. And that requires co-operation, not isolation. It requires interaction with others, not self-reliance.