I read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" during the return flight from my New Warrior Training Adventure staffing. The essay reinforces many of the principles I revisited during the weekend, which resonate with me deeply -- such as the inherent integrity of each man's mind (and soul) and the dangers of conformity and blindly adhering to creeds and other classifications -- but it also raises some issues with which I do not feel deep resonance -- such as the primacy of constancy over consistency or coherence and the foolishness of philanthropy. I agree with Emerson's entreaties to trust my self, speak my truth, do my work, and not be subservient to the approval or disapproval of others. However, I judge that Emerson is taking independence to the extreme, discouraging sympathy, charity and an openness to others' perspectives. While I want to achieve greater independence of thought and action, I want to do so within a community of others, and find an appropriate balance between independence and interdependence, between serving my self and serving others, between being true to myself and enjoying meaningful relationships with others.
Among the terms I find particularly appealing are alienated majesty (hearing others speak truths we ourselves had earlier discovered, but rejected), the vigor of wild virtue (uncivilized, spontaneous, instinctual aboriginal strength) and the corpse of memory (our concern with being consistent, lest we violate expectations and disappoint others). I'll include a number of longer passages I found particularly provocative below.
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. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the unversal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost.
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.
We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of the divine idea which each of us represents.
Trust thyself: every heart every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Nothing is sacred but your own mind.
Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think. ... you will always find people who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy to live in the world and live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds ... Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day ... Is it so bad to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
[I'm reminded of Strawberry Fields Forever: "Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. / It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out, it doesn’t matter much to me."]
The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself out to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions.
Whenever a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away -- means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour.
The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth and RIght, and calms itself that all things go well.
As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect. ... Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother's, or his brother's brother's God.
The intellect is a vagabond, and our sytem of education fosters restlessness ... We imitate; and what is imitation but the traveling of the mind? ... Insist on yourself; never imitate ... Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much ... Abide in the noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.
Society never advances ... For everything that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts ... [and] aboriginal strength.
I wonder what this view implies for the possibility of any advancement for an individual, and whether Emerson believed progress of any sort is possible. Of course, taking a cue from him, I suppose "it doesn't matter much to me."