Sunday, April 5, 2009

Pros and Cons of Emerson's "Self-Reliance"

Emerson’s “Self-Reliance" pretty much speaks for it self. It emphasizes people’s need to really rely on their selves, to not focus on being accepted by society, and to really focus on being an individual instead of having some kind of a desperate need of belonging to a community which I can say I do agree with, however, the idea of self-reliance here can be dangerous, can cause isolation, and it is a bit too idealistic. It is sound when Emerson brings up the issue of people who let go of their dreams or of their ideas just because they are afraid of how society perceives them. They easily let go of their dreams and allow other people who are not afraid of society’s opinion to steal their ideas, basically, it is better to follow your own thought, no matter how ridiculous it may seem or someone else will take that idea and run with it. Also, the idea of hard work and its consequences (good) are also emphasized in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” which can be seen when he states, “A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart in his work and done his best”. There is no other feeling than feeling proud when you have worked so hard for something and you gave your whole heart into it and it becomes successful. The accomplishment makes you feel confident that you can do anything.
Although, I do agree with most of Emerson’s rhetoric, there were some statements that can be dangerous if used for the wrong reasons. When someone starts throwing out phrases like “the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it or What I must do, is all that concerns me, not that people think”, it becomes dangerous especially when read by, shall we say, a very angry, messed up (mentally), and lonely individual who can take this phrase and cause havoc on other people. For instance, Emerson states “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”. Hum, okay, are we forgetting about Hitler, Ida Amin, and other crazy rulers who believed in what ever the craziness they believed in and used that craziness that they called their beliefs to cause unbelievable brutality in the world. Should they be commended on following their own beliefs, on carrying out their beliefs, and causing havoc on their innocent victims? I am going to assume that Emerson is not advocating for people to be the next Hitlers or Ida Amins of the world. So, maybe, just maybe, Emerson is stating that the ability to have any belief, a belief that was not forced onto you, a belief that is yours and your alone, whether you want everyone to belief in it or not is not important, but the fact that it was your idea and your belief is what really matters; it is an authentic belief and idea.
It seems as if most of Emerson’s proverbs or advices have some sense of duality because they do seem as if they are good advice to live by, however, they can also seem arrogant and selfish. An instance is when Emerson states” Envy is ignorance” and “imitation is suicide”. Yes, being envious of someone can be ignorant, can cause jealousy , and hatred, however, why does envy have to be completely ignorance, why can’t it be a stepping stool for someone to better themselves. If I see someone who has something that I have been killing myself to get, why shouldn’t that motivate me to work harder to get whatever it is that I have been killing myself for. Also, why does imitation have to be suicide? Why can’t imitation be a sign of respect? Hell, I would love to have a life that resembles Oprah’s; I would also love to imitate the beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr., Pastor Festus Adeyeye, and Gandhi. Yes, maybe I am not following an original precept of living my life; maybe I am not coming up with my own rules of how I want to live, however, these individuals who have lived marvelous lives are my teachers in hopes of also having a life that resembles their own.
Yes, I do agree that people do not need to conform to societal pressure in order to fit in, people should believe in their ability to accomplish anything they put their minds to, people should believe that they are smart enough to come up with ideas that have never been though of before, however, there is a line between self reliance and selfishness. Why is it wrong to want to help the poor, why is it wrong to want to give to the poor? Yes, there are some institutions that use money that are suppose to be for the poor for their own benefits, which pisses me off, however, that does not mean that everyone is like that. Yes, have your beliefs, but don’t impose that belief onto others, have your own mind and do something wonderful with that belief, but don’t be selfish or completely secluded from the world just because you have your own beliefs. Again, Emerson makes some great points, however, caution is advised.


  1. Emersons"Self Reliance" gives value to mankind’s unique and individual character by advising them to rely on themselves and disregard the effects of societal forces. For Emerson, self reliance is important and assists in building ones confidence. However, Emerson highly idealizes this concept not taking into consideration that societal disapproval is sometimes necessary to improve ourselves. Although this seems like an optimistic attitude, it presents the issues of isolation and doubt that is stated in Luigia's post. I have a similar attitude of isolation being dangerous.

    If you are part of a team, whether its sports or any other type of group associated in some joint action, there is a value in the group that takes into consideration a group rather than an individual. Wherever you go in life you will be associated with others as a sort of "team". Whether you are part of a schools staff, part of a corporation, or even as a parent, there is still teamwork needed to accomplish something where you may rely on others even if they disapprove of you. What is important is that you deal with their disapproval with optimism and improvement rather than self shame and doubt.

    We will always part of a group at every moment, but we are in many ways associated with others looking to accomplish a similar goal. If we don't accomplish that goal we either criticize ourselves or each other. Many times criticism is viewed as a negative rant only pointing out flaws, but in many ways it can be useful for improvement. I believe that Emerson may not have been as social as most people and decided to focus more on the value of self reliance as a move away from social assimilation. I do however strongly agree with many of his points on “envy as ignorance”. At times it is important to balance self reliance but also not be afraid to take in societal disapproval because sometimes you can take a criticism and use it to improve yourself.

    Rex De Asis

  2. In "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson argues seemingly for a profoundly rationalistic weltanschaaung, one in which reality is dictated primarily by one's own mind. He celebrates thought and innovation over the platitudes and traditions of a bygone era. "Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence this worship of the past?" he wonders (1171). Also: "It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but bring the past for judgement into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day" (1168). What is it about the fact that others have posited something, make that thing automatically worthy of consideration and endowed with authority? For Emerson, immorality is conforming to the beliefs, wants, or whims of other people; virtue is adherence to the rule of one's mind. For "suppose they [the ancients] were virtuous: did they wear out virtue?" (1170) he exclaims.

    Central to Emerson's philosophy is the supremacy of one's mind. "What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what the people think" (1166), he says, and: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind" (1165). He goes so far, in fact, as to maintain that right and wrong is determined solely by one's own natural propensity, stating that "the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it" (1165).

    In 1841, half a century after the intellectual, rationale-founded Declaration of Independence, and half a century before the Industrial Revolution expanded the American view of man's inherent capabilities, perhaps Emerson is acting as an intellectual bridge. By upholding rationality, man's essential free will, and the products of one's mind, he is a paragon of American might and supremacy.

  3. “Self-Reliance” cannot be understood at face value.Emerson’s arguments for the superiority of man’s thoughts over anything else must be taken with a grain of salt. Otherwise, it would be simplistic to assume that anyone can take the arguments and misconstrue them to further his own agenda. For example, he states that (and I quote from the entry here) “the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it or What I must do, is all that concerns me, not that people think.” Obviously, his premise is “Justice,” to oneself and to society, but to the extent of what man perceives as just. From my understanding of the text, the ultimate good a man can do is for himself, he should be concerned solely with himself. In practice, this would be difficult- man is not perfect, he needs to rely on others, either for their ability or intellect. This is where I have an issue with his writing. The concept of the “individual” is the greatest conceit, and it is just impractical. If one is to live in society, he must contribute to it.

  4. What I like most about Emerson's "Self-Reliance" is that it speaks the absolute truth, something many are afraid to come near. In life, many times we can only rely on ourselves, whether we like it or not. Some people tend to be selfish, or jealous or just plain stupid and won't be able or won't want to help you achieve your hopes and dreams or even a small project. Many have their lives focused with showing off in order to fit into a crowd. How many times have we heard the expression "Keeping up with the Jones".
    For example, many in society today are so concerned with being in fashion so people can see they are in style, they don't care how ridiculous they look like.
    I agree that everyone is entitle to their own beliefs since we are in America and have Freedom to believe. However, I would like that everyone respects the next person whatever their beliefs may be. Everyone should live their own life in their own manner. The ideal situation was everyone living together and getting along no matter what their beliefs, intellect, sex, religion, etc.
    Of course, the bottom line is that we should never be extreme in our thoughts or actions, one way or another. Otherwise, we would be sitting on an island by ourselves and never deal with anyone.

  5. Many of the posts here seem to argue the dangers of Emerson "imposing" his theories of self-reliance and individualism. Emerson, in fact, is educating men: they need not "look outside themselves" for truth, value, and a union with God. It is important to note that he speaks to a specific audience; an educated audience. Emerson's claims that "envy is ignorance" and "imitation is suicide" should be explored further than face-value.

    Envy, a common human feeling, is born of society. It is perpetuated by materialism and conformity. Emerson's belief in self-reliance empowers man to look to himself for motivation and not to his neighbor. "Imitation [being] suicide", in the same vein, adheres to Emerson's beliefs of self-reliance bringing him closer to God's path. Imitation is not flattery, but rather an deviation from trust in one's own thoughts. According to Emerson, God has made each person unique (with a unique path and voice) and therefore, to imitate is to stray from one's innate path.

    Emerson does not seem to be anti-community, nor is he anti-society. On the contrary, self-actualization and self-reliance are the seeds of an improved society. Emerson's famously repetitive mantra, "trust thyself", is what leads to genius in men. He believes this genius has been divinely granted for a greater purpose. For man to follow their true genius is for nature to take its course. As Emerson defines nature, it is "self-describing" and "holds the answers according to God's plan." Soul and nature have the same structure and both hold the answers to the philosopher's questions of existence.

    Emerson believes man has an innate purpose in this world. To discover his purpose, man must look within himself; he must trust himself. Individualism is not synonymous with isolation and seclusion though solitary time may be conducive to self-actualization. Emerson seemingly believes individualism is essential for an improved, harmonious society.
    - Irma Suarez

  6. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” can be very problematic, in the sense that he has an extreme view on individuality. As many have mentioned, he appears to be egotistical, and his characteristics detach him from society. He writes, “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (1165). This statement seems to be selfish, and indifferent to society as a whole. Instead of promoting individuals to follow their dreams, he seems quite cynical. As mentioned, there are countless individuals who took this philosophy into their hands and destroyed countless lives with such thought. To exemplify the selfishness behind his ideology we can take account his statements on giving. He writes, “Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor?” (1166). It appears that he is only concerned with his well being, which is good, in the sense that we have to survive, but at the same time it is self-seeking and harsh, because some individuals have more than they need, and it wouldn’t hurt them to help the needy.
    On the other hand, there is something I can agree with. Emerson talks about the construction of the civilized man, and the results of such sophistication. He writes, “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but loses so much support of muscle. He has got a fine Geneva watch but he has lost the skill to tell the hour by the sun” (1178). All these advances have made mankind weak in a sense, and we have become dependent on creations, instead of relying on the skills that we have acquired from survival. Hence, the author seems to be conflicted, he has a dichotomy in personality.