My Saturday coffee buddy Tom is having his freshman class read and reflect on Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance”, partly to introduce them to the discipline of critical reading and thinking at the college level. It should be interesting since Emerson, writing in 1841, used only male pronouns, and his 19th century verbal flourishes sound strained and strange to modern ears.
I last read it in high school, so for the sake of our weekly coffee dates, read it again, making a few notes along the way. I was reminded that Emerson had a powerful, but unremembered, influence on the mythology of the American character. This essay in particular laid a foundation for what would morph into the ideal of rugged individualism, though I’m not sure how. What he called self reliance had more to do with what we call self confidence, which is not the same as rugged individualism, in spite of some shared attributes.
If there is a central theme, it’s that in any generation there are no fewer great minds capable of bequeathing great wisdom to future generations than there ever were. What’s lacking is the self confident courage to proclaim it. While he had high regard for intuition as the source of wisdom, he also recognized it came through the hard work of well informed thinking. Moreover, he believed well informed thinking was more likely to come through perseverance in the face of trial and error than a higher education’s supposed ticket to professional success.
Every self-help guru whose published a book or given a TED talk owes something to Emerson’s demand that being all who you can be requires the courage to claim your own originality, and that it is right to ask of others, “If you can love me for what I am, we shall be happier.” No egalitarian, he didn’t appear interested in returning the favor. His love of the common people was purely in the abstract. He recognized, in a sort of pre-Maslow way, that those who are fully actualized are at the top of a pyramid. Below them are lesser mortals who may be on their way up, but probably aren’t. Still, anyone who read his work or heard him lecture would be assured they were among those rising, or maybe already there. Below them all: the “unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society.” And this from an ardent abolitionist.
You know all those elders who complain that kids have it too easy these days? There was Emerson in 1841 complaining that college graduates had it too easy. They expected instant success and wealth right out of school. They were nothing but a bunch of elitist snowflakes not worth comparing to the hard working journeymen of rural areas. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? He went on to harp about how modern 19th century technology was making life too easy for everyone, especially the young. No one had to walk anymore. They all had carriages. Anything you wanted to know could be easily looked up in the library, so you didn’t actually have to learn anything. Maps, charts, almanacs, and such took away the need to know by experience about the land, sky, and sea. Machines were taking jobs from skilled workers. Oh the ruin of it all.
Nevertheless, he would have us value one another for who and what we are, not what we have. Shamelessly inconsistent and self contradictory, his essay may be best remembered for the line: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” He traveled the world, and loathed tourists. He made friends with the great intellects of his day, and dismissed those who became disciples of what they taught. He praised self reliant living in the woods, and enjoyed an urban house staffed with servants. He denigrated the wisdom of ancient days, but studied all the classics, quoting freely from them. He rejected popular approval, and relied on it for his income. Self reliant (confident) all the way.
I hope Tom’s freshmen, many from well to do families where they have been tutored, coached, and therapeutically counseled from childhood, will discover through their few weeks with Emerson the courage to claim their own originality, the value of doing the hard work of informed critical thinking, and the courage to express it as the authentic person they are in the process of becoming. There will be others in his class from less privileged backgrounds. May they discover within themselves the same gifts, and the courage to say, “If you can love me for what I am, we shall be happier. I will do the same for you.”