“Nothing is at last sacred as the integrity of your own mind.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American Transcendentalist philosopher in the 19th century. He is regarded as the greatest American intellectual of the 19th century, and Self-Reliance is his most famous essay. Any idea regarding the self is controversial, except perhaps self-esteem. There is always a battle between the individual and society. Society tries to influence the individual and shape his behavior.
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes through his minds from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
The individual looks to society for ideals and confirmation that he is doing the right things in life. The ideals of society are what most individuals strive to become. This is what we describe as someone who is “successful”. There are many forces trying to shape our behavior all the time – family, friends, societal ideals, advertisers, social media. If you attempt to trust yourself and become self-reliant, what will people think of you?
“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous half possession.”
Would you rather be loved for who you pretend of be or hated for who you are? The choice is never this polarizing, but the illustration is meaningful. When someone is too reliant on other people’s opinions of them and it always stems from the same thing – the person doesn’t think they are enough to begin with.
An Optimistic Idea
Self-reliance is a wholly optimistic idea. It says, individuals are more than they think they are. They should choose to rely on themselves instead of depending on society for ideas and approval. “Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.” Emerson wrote his treatise on self-reliance in the 19th century. He was born to a puritanical family; his self-reliance was independence from that society and its religious ideas. In the 21st century the amount of distractions and conformity driving influences are far greater than in the 19th century. Self-reliance is also far more important in our era.
Emerson’s world was much simpler. He didn’t have Google and Facebook algorithms manipulating his ideas about the world. The paradox of our society is the people that are the most “connected” actually know the least about what is actually happening in the world. People that follow the new are exposed to click-bait titles and polarizing content. Truly bipartisan news services disappeared with algorithmic advertising. Self-reliance is the smartest defense in a polarizing political climate.
Independent individuals aren’t part of the collective unconsciousness that joins mass political movements. This is always the greatest existential danger to a society. If a portion of the population feels disenfranchised or insecure, a charismatic leader can convince them of crazy ideas. This is the history of the 20th century.
Individuals? A self-reliant individual would simply leave his country. Emerson believed that conformity was the death of the individual. In a period of collective unconsciousness, it is even more true. The choice is yours. Do you want to remain part of the crowd or go your own way? The choice is completely yours, and so are the consequences.
“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.” Abraham Maslow
Self-Reliance and Other Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson (Amazon)