At only 30 pages, Self-Reliance has the qualities of a concentrate, perhaps the very essence of personal development. Self-Reliance was one of the key pieces of writing which helped carve the ethic of American individualism, and forms part of the intellectual bedrock of today's self-help writers.
As one of the great philosopher-sages of Western culture, Emerson still matters; in fact, he has never been more relevant. The yearning to fulfil our potential has always been human nature - now, though, we are likely to see it as a right rather than a starry wish. Emerson called his philosophy Idealism, but it was not romantic, unrealistic or fuzzy. Rather, as one Emersonian scholar (R Geldard, The Vision of Emerson) has said: 'It has a touch of granite in it'.
For Emerson, self-reliance was more than the image of a family carving out a life on the frontier. Though he admired the do-it-yourself attitude and revelled in nature, Emerson's frontier, the place of real freedom and opportunity, was a mental landscape free from mediocrity and conformity.
Unique and free
Like his friend and protege Henry David Thoreau (see Walden), Emerson thought it silly to run around reforming and bettering the world, even giving to 'good causes', before we had found our place in it. He famously observed that, 'All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.' If we could not examine ourselves and identify our calling, we would be of little use. Lack of awareness would see us quickly moulded into shape by a society that cared little for the beauty and freedom of the individual. This is the path most of us take, happy to go along with society's programme in exchange for a level of status and reasonable material circumstances. Though we profess to break away from limitations, the reality is comfort in conformity:
We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.
Our primary duty is not - ultimately - to our family, to our job, to our country, but only that which calls us to do or to be. Too often 'duty' hides a lack of responsibility in taking up a unique path. We can push aside a calling for some years, choosing obvious sources of money or satisfaction, or a more comfortable situation, but it will eventually make its claims.
For Emerson, genius was not owned by the great artists and scientists. The genuine things we do, those not in reference to what others are likely to think, are fragments of genius that must be expanded to form all the days of our life. Only by finding and expressing this essence is a person's true nature revealed, whereas 'Your conformity explains nothing.'
Clarity and knowledge
Emerson was heavily influenced by the ancient Eastern religious texts (the Upanishads, Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita). Their philosophy is a revelation of the oneness of all things; life is full of illusions and false ties that prevent us from being reunited with what is eternal and unchanging. Through awareness of our own thought processes we might hope to clear the fog of self-deception and illusion, what we now call the 'scripting' of our lives by society. To be self-reliant is to not take anyone's word for anything. Emerson had not disagreed with Thoreau's contention that Harvard, which they both attended, taught many disciplines, but the roots of none of them.
Emerson was aware that conventional education was not really up to this job of lifting the veil, as it mainly dealt in intellectual categorisation. We would achieve real awareness in meditative thought which, instead of closing down knowledge into compartments, involved opening up to receive whole, changeless wisdom. This primary knowing Emerson called Intuition, while all later teaching was merely tuition. He tried to make us think twice about depending on the strength of our will alone. Meditative thought, because it puts us in tune with universal forces and laws, leads us to ways of being and doing that are inherently right and 'successful'.
The people of his time saw Emerson as a sage or prophet, with fewer of the faults of human nature than anyone they knew. But Emerson had, as anyone, the hopes, the highs, the setbacks which life seems to consist of. What made him stand out was a belief that we did not have to have see-sawing emotional lives reacting to good or bad events.
These are the final lines of Self-Reliance:
A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.
This speaks to the very heart of the human condition and the ideas about Fortune we live by. Yet Emerson believed that all happiness, ultimately, was self-generated; it was not human nature to be permanently hostage to events - we are quite capable of detachment or transcendence.
The reader may find no better writer than Emerson to help make the leap into self-reliant freedom. It is difficult to read Self-Reliance simply as an historical work, because you are easily pulled into Emerson's orbit of pure responsibility and self-awareness, a world in which there are no excuses, only opportunities for greatness.
What was Emerson's idea of success? His success was not about our steely Will against the universe, heroically overcoming obstacles. Rather, by becoming more fully aware of the patterns and flow of nature, time and space, by working with the grain of the universe, we are part of an infinitely greater power.
The principles he talked of in the quote above are not restrictive, but our creative, conscious response to the world; our lives should reflect this perfect universe, rather than being shaped by the crooked turns and boxes of culture. The self-reliant individual should be able to live in the world and improve it, not be just another product of it.
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"Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind."
Born in 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts, Emerson was the second oldest of eight children. Enrolled at Harvard at the age of 14, he graduated four years later halfway down in his class. After some time as a schoolteacher, he attended Divinity College at Harvard, became a Unitarian pastor and married, only to see his wife Ellen die of tuberculosis in 1831. After resigning his post because of doctrinal disputes, Emerson travelled to Europe and met Carlyle, Coleridge and Wordsworth.
Returning to America in 1835, he settled in Concord and married again, to Lydia Jackson, with whom he had five children. In 1836 he published Nature, which set down Transcendentalist principles. Other Transcendentalists included Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Peabody and Jones Very. In the following two years, he delivered controversial addresses at Harvard, the first asserting American intellectual independence from Europe, the second attracting the wrath of the religious establishment in its plea for independence of belief above all creeds and churches.
In 1841 and 1844, two series of Essays were published, including "Self-Reliance", "Spiritual Laws", "Compensation" and "Experience", and in the decade 1850-60, Representative Men, English Traits and The Conduct of Life. Emerson stopped writing and lecturing ten years before his death in 1882.