A Reflection on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”
“[…] but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards”.
A man of remarkable articulation, Ralph Waldo Emerson embodies the virtues and eccentric convictions of transcendentalism. As an outspoken nonconformist, he champions a deliberate disengagement from the blind stampede of the masses and a return to the serenity that accompanies solitude. In his essay, “Self-Reliance”, he deconstructs the nature of our compulsions while simultaneously elucidating the means to regain the rightful autonomy and authority over our lives. He challenges us to clear our minds of the residue that has accumulated from the social and cultural conditioning that have assaulted us since birth and to use this newly polished apparatus of our awareness to see and embrace our own personal truth. His words reflect flawlessly the self-evidence that is embedded in his message, provoking a profound inquiry into the workings and habits of our own minds. As we question our assumptions and unconscious tendencies and begin to imbue our consciousness with a confidence in our own intuition, there emerges a window revealing an alternate reality, offering to the eyes a world sacred and dynamic, with each day bearing new and fruitful possibilities.
“Self-Reliance” begins with a Latin quote from the poet Persius, “Ne te quaesiveris extra”, literally, “Do not seek yourself outside yourself”. This statement contains the core of Emerson’s idea and is central to understanding his views. According to Emerson, we all have the wisdom within ourselves to live freely and fully and the discovery of our intuition can connect us to a greater reality than the one perceived solely by our senses. Without the insights flowing to us through our intuition we lose sight of a wider perspective of the world and end up merely mimicking others. “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till” (Emerson, p. 212). Our authenticity abandons us when we willingly act artificially, that is to say, when we take another’s truth as our own. What’s worse is that other people’s ‘truth’ is usually the same trendy deception coursing through social circles, devoid of any real substance. Two factors take us away from our own truth: our desire to conform and the consistency of our behavior.
Conformity is a compelling force within a society and is especially deadly when it assumes a religious stance. The religious dogma of the day (and social conventions in general) exerts a heavy pressure on the minds of ordinary men. Strategic in their means, it paves the way by injecting doubt into their experience, professing an inherent inadequacy in the individual. An acceptance of this particular belief creates an unnatural void and compels a man to conform to the beliefs and actions around him to regain a semblance of dignity and thus appear worthy in the eyes of others. Running contrary to this implicit by Emerson, real dignity is found in the unabashed embrace of your originality, far from any robotic obedience to some passing doctrinal authority outside yourself.
Fear is a prevalent theme throughout “Self-Reliance”, be it the fear of our own potential and divinity or simply appearing as a hypocrite to another. Emerson explains the way the consistency of our actions is a result of not wanting to contradict ourselves. We are bogged down in the past, recovering from our memory actions once performed and we strive to reproduce the after-image in its every minute detail. We stifle our creative and spontaneous nature by convincing ourselves that it would be a betrayal to not perpetuate the previous stream of reactions that people take for our essence. Emerson says, “To be great is to be misunderstood”, and directs our attention to the geniuses of our time: Socrates, Jesus, and Galileo to name but a few. We shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves by consoling others with our predictability. Emerson encourages us to soften our fixed notions of who we are and allow the pure, unfiltered expression to flow out of our being.
The new-found identity brought on by the dismantling of our habitual conformity and consistency is truly cosmic in magnitude. In “The Metempsychotic Mind: Emerson and Consciousness”, an article by John Corrigen, Emerson’s conception of consciousness is explained in depth. Metempsychosis is “the transmigration of the soul through successive bodies” and according to Corrigen it is this quality of existence that facilitates the impulsive tendency to conform. We possess a mutual affinity with all other beings, whether it is recognized within us or not, and in a way we are trying to find our own personal truth through the universal nature of all life. Although this will not lead us to a state of inner harmony, it could be considered a confused attempt at reuniting with our true nature. Emerson says, “Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment”; in this sense despite the degree of conformity, within the heart of every individual lies the motivation to realize a truth independent of circumstance.
Emerson’s essay incites us to rebel against the rigid confines of conventional society and break down our unconscious and consistent habits. To realize our potential we need to access our intuition to uncover the divine reality that is both within and all around us. We require no validation from outside of ourselves; we need no precursor to be loyal to our true nature. An uncompromising trust in one’s self and the confidence to express our originality is all that is necessary to free ourselves from the influence of those around us and to be wholly self-reliant.
 Corrigan, John Michael. “The Metempsychotic Mind: Emerson and Consciousness.” Journal of the History of Ideas 71.3 (2010): 433-455. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Mon. 11 Oct. 2010.
Into the Wild and Beyond the Deteriorating American Dream
Life in modern America appears at first glance to deliver the promises it preaches. The American Dream is painted as a universally accepted ambition that all levelheaded Americans strive earnestly for. It encapsulates the core values of our culture; those treasured virtues of hard work, liberty, and freedom are destined to materialize into material wealth if one pulls up his sleeves, applies a bit of elbow grease, and gets down to work. Although there are cases of people rising out of destitution, overcoming poverty and the misfortunes accompanying a life lived on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, a closer look reveals these are the exceptions, not the norm. In our consumer culture, there persists the unspoken belief that the invisible hand of the market is the proper proprietor of justice. We seldom question the inherited assumptions we hold about the world and our role in it. It is as if we are tied by unseen strings, threads of expectation and socialization, woven so thick around our true identity that we mistake the mess of yarn for who we really are. Our dreams come prepackaged and the American Dream is no exception- its rancidity barely perceptible beyond the synthetic plastic shrink wrap that encases it. If we are able to claw our way through the superfluous packaging what remains is little more than a cliché IOU note with a stamped signature by Uncle Sam. We find out that the once-worshipped dream comes ensnared with a whole lot of fine print. Looking closely with a mass-produced magnifying glass, attempting to peer past the mesmerizing veneer, we see that the dream only applies to a select few: namely those whose parents are wealthy, those who enlist in the military, and finally those who are willing to commit legalized exploitation in the name of profit. Chris McCandless was one who thought the dream was more analogous to a nightmare. His gripping story is captured by author and fellow outdoor enthusiast Jon Krakauer, a man whose earlier life eerily resembles that of McCandless’s, in the book Into the Wild. Chris grew up relatively privileged in Annandale, Virginia with his sister, Carine. His parents, Walt and Billie, worked long hours from home at a consulting firm, although before Walt was employed by NASA as a radio engineer. They projected an illusion of the conventional family all the while concealing the fact that Walt was still married to his previous wife at the time of Chris’ birth. As he matured, Chris became increasingly disconcerted with the middle-class lifestyle that descended upon him. “Early in his senior year at Woodson, Chris informed his parents that he had no intention of going to college. When Walt and Billie suggested that he needed a college degree to attain a fulfilling career, Chris answered that careers were demeaning ‘twentieth-century inventions,’ more of a liability than an asset, and that he would do fine without one, thank you” (Krakauer, 114). Although he did go on to graduate from Emory University, his path diverged from that of ordinary graduates. Shortly thereafter he donated his savings to charity, forsaking his previous life of privilege and embarked on a journey to discover the truth that escaped both his family and mainstream society. The mysterious life of Chris McCandless ends in tragedy when his emaciated corpse is discovered in the Alaskan wilderness. The contrasting elements in his life lead us to wonder what drove him to such extremes. His story details the degree of discontent that is brewed in the bastion of idealism and reveals numerous contradictions inherent in our culture, giving us a fresh perspective on what it truly means to live the “Good Life”. The failure and deceit Chris found in his father mirrored the fantasy of the American Dream; he ultimately abandoned both his family and the monotony of mainstream American society to discover for himself the true meaning of independence and freedom. Seeking Nature as the ultimate refuge, he audaciously advanced into the wild.
Struck by the literary works of such men as Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, and Henry David Thoreau, Chris was clearly inspired and influenced by their shared contempt for the values promulgated by the materialistic society that surrounded each of them in their respective time periods and geographical locations. In Chris’ case, post-WWII America was a cesspool of capitalistic greed; the populace persuaded by producers of ‘goods’ to abandon their identity as citizens and don a new hat- that of consumers. Corporations began to wield power previously unimaginable and started to infiltrate the government of the United States by means of corporate financing of political campaigns and relentless lobbying. Already in control of the mainstream media, the propaganda released reached epic proportions and everybody it seemed was singing blindly to the same tune of endless economic growth and material progress, all the while overlooking the fact that the Earth harbors certain inalienable limits, finite resource constraints and nonrenewable natural capital requiring eons to be replenished. Not only did Chris leave mainstream American society as a result of an unsettling disillusionment with the shallow pursuits of wealth that fueled the aspirations of many during that time, it also has origins in his discovery of his fathers’ previous marriage and the fact that he was born out of wedlock. The disappointment he brewed for his parents reflected his disgust for the superficiality apparent in the larger society. Walt and Billie concealed this information from Chris and as he slowly pieced together the truth he began to lose respect and faith in his father. “He later declared to Carine and others that the deception committed by Walt and Billie made his ‘entire childhood seem like a fiction.’ But he did not confront his parents with what he knew, then or ever. He chose instead to make a secret of his dark knowledge and express his rage obliquely, in silence and sullen withdrawal. In 1988, as Chris’s resentment of his parents hardened, his sense of outrage over injustice in the world at large grew” (Krakauer 122). The fault Chris found in the dishonesty of his parents undermined his already tenuous belief in the authenticity of conventional existence in mainstream American society. He was betrayed on two fronts, personally with the double life his father led and the secret his mother jointly conspired to keep, and culturally with the unobtainable American Dream. As he withheld the depths of his resentment from his parents, he withdrew from the fictitious life laid out in front of him; he refused to fulfill either the expectations both his father and the greater society forced upon him. He retreated into the wilderness to escape the lies which saturated his previous identity and imprisoned him in a false reality.
During the course of his journey Chris crossed paths with many people, affecting a few in profound ways. Ron Franz met Chris while he was hitchhiking around the west coast. When the article Krakauer first wrote in the magazine Outside revealing the details of Chris’ tragic story was published, Franz contacted him explaining how he had given him a ride from Salton City in California to Grand Junction in Colorado, where he left him to hitchhike up to South Dakota. There were a few weeks while Chris was waiting for spring to arrive before embarking to Alaska where he and Franz spent a good deal of time together. Franz taught Chris the techniques of leatherworking and listened to Chris lecture him “about the shortcomings of his sedentary existence, urging the eighty-year-old to sell most of his belongings, move out of an apartment, and live on the road” (Krakauer 51). Franz received a letter postmarked from South Dakota from Chris in April; the letter tells of his recent developments and his current plans to venture off to Alaska. Also contained in the letter is advice for Franz, which really reflects Chris’ own aspirations and ideas of what the “Good Life” is and how to realize it. In the letter Chris implores Franz: “Don’t settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon. […] Don’t hesitate or allow yourself to make excuses. Just get out and do it. Just get out and do it. You will be very, very glad that you did (Krakauer 57-8). The elderly man took Chris’ guidance to heart and moved out of his apartment and into a camper, occupying the campsite Chris used to stay at. The adventurous spirit Chris possessed was contagious and inspired Franz to “revolutionize” his life and “move into an entirely new realm of experience” (Krakauer 57).
Chris was seeking a spiritual experience, a variant of transcendence found by living humbly in the wild and off the land. He yearned for a life removed from the pitfalls of comfort and luxury which perpetuated the growing global disparity between the classes. The privileged wealthy and the comparably poor majority are two byproducts originating from a shared source, which is the system in its entirety. This includes all the myriad political actors, corporate CEOs, alongside the out of sight military personnel arranged under their militant managers- dictators and generals, followed by armies of obliging citizens, mechanically producing and consuming, plundering and polluting. The murderers awaiting the death sentence distanced by mere metal bars from murderers endorsed by the government, the executioners nearly indistinguishable from the criminals they legally execute, emblematic of the irony inherent in the corrupt system that has mutated into existence. Chris desperately needed to test his spirit and ascend gracefully up to his own righteous standards. He wanted to prove to himself that he was capable, not of anything in particular per se, rather capable of taking risks and living life to the absolute fullest. “He had a need to test himself in ways, as he was fond of saying ‘that mattered’. He possessed grand- some would say grandiose- spiritual ambitions. According to the moral absolutism that characterizes McCandless’s beliefs, a challenge in which a successful outcome’s assured isn’t a challenge at all” (Krakauer, 182). Chris dispossessed conventional society in favor of a nomadic existence, with the virtues of frugality and fortitude at the forefront of his consciousness. He aspired for an independence unconditioned by the pre-established structures that have spread pervasively over the face of the planet. He longed to be free from false realities, to escape the lie his father embodied, and the greater delusion marring the mainstream American society in which his father was intimately embedded. To Chris’s animated imagination, Nature became a refuge. A world that had not been dominated and hence desecrated by humanity, but enveloped it. It was a reality discontinuous with the stagnant trajectory of an increasingly materialistic world, with people becoming incapacitated by the incessant conditioning orchestrated by the dominant culture. Chris abandoned his conventional persona, taking up Alexander Supertramp as his pseudo name. Enmeshed among his decrepit self were the erroneous obligations associated with being a victim, ahem- member, of society, these he relinquished in veneration of his noble aspirations. He strove to live his life spontaneously in a state of fluid adventure. I believe Chris was successful in his quest for freedom and independence. To succeed in any endeavor you must be willing to take risks and Chris literally risked his life in pursuit of a greater, sublime reality. In that vein he was personally triumphant as he left the incarcerating life of comfort to explore a world deemed taboo by mainstream American society. A lifestyle characterized by uncertainty and self-reliance, starkly contrasting the carrot of consistency and dependency waved heroically like an American flag, it undermined the allure of the prevailing culture of convenience. His life story is also successful from a societal point of view as it serves as an example of one person who was prepared to drastically change his lifestyle and resulting external circumstances, to suit his new needs, which were the independence, freedom, and ultimately truth he vehemently sought. I have experienced from my own subjective perspective that many people in American society fail to take the initiative to revolutionize their lives. The very notion that we must work a mundane job to surmise enough capital to exchange it for basic necessities and extraneous goods and services is seldom questioned. His story can help wake us up from this debilitating consumer delusion- where we have devolved into crooked drains on the natural resources and poisonous parasites to the environment at large. Our burning problem is that once we suck the life-force out of our current host- Earth, they’ll be no place for our species to go, no vulnerable planet hoarding bountiful resources waiting to be devoured for our amusement. We can seize his story as an opportunity to move beyond a socialized identity and discover for ourselves who exactly we are and how we want to spend our precious waking hours on Earth, with the simple yet profound understanding that daylight and lifespan also come bound with finite limits.
The relevance of Chris’s story cannot be overstated as we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction the planet has ever witnessed, according to past geologic records. This worldwide ecological collapse is precipitated by the lifestyles adapted to survive in an unnatural industrialized environment with powerful political, military, and industrial actors fiercely maintaining the status quo as they are the ones profiting from the system at the expense of human dignity and ecological integrity. The lesson that surfaces for me is the value and significance of our limited time on this planet. We have a tendency to live unconsciously, consoling our justified sense of inadequacy with the belief that we will always have tomorrow to shape up and reform. Yet tomorrow never comes, and living life without foresight leads us squarely to the problem we collectively face, a world choked full of pollution, eroding into the rising sea- what little land remains lays scorched, boiling in the temperamental temperatures of the Earth’s now volatile atmosphere. Karl Marx wrote a piece from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 titled “Alienated Labor” which has proven insightful regarding how our lives are spent. He explains how our current political economic system dehumanizes workers by separating the human being from the product of their labor. Not only is the worker separated from the product itself, the labor exerted is also assumed distinct from the worker. “This fact simply indicates that the object which labor produces, its product, stands opposed to it as an alien thing, as a power independent of the producer. It is the objectification of labor. The realization of labor is its objectification. In the viewpoint of political economy this realization of labor appears as the diminution of the worker, the objectification as the loss of and subservience to the object, and the appropriation as alienation, as externalization” (Glaucon, 273-74). The alienation of labor creates a new commodity, one which can be exchanged on the market like any other good or service. We are in essence exchanging the better part of our lives to produce (increasingly unnecessary) goods that we despise because it necessitates restricting our unique creativity that yearns to flow through our being. Instead we are slaves to a broken system, composed of structures corrupted by greed and actors animated by exploitation. It is this false principle that our current capitalistic political economy is built upon, the erroneous belief that “labor is external to the laborer- that is, it is not part of his nature- and that the worker does not affirm himself in his work but denies himself, feels miserable and unhappy, develops no free physical and mental energy but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind […] His work, therefore, is not voluntary but coerced, forced labor. It is not the satisfaction of a need but only a means to satisfy other needs” (Glaucon, 275-76). This is the real result of capitalism, not prosperity through hard work- but the denigration of the human spirit by means of alienation and exploitation. Our time is truly spent- wasted and exhausted, as we submit to this inhumane economic system. Working in such a manner devalues our time, reducing it to a commodity that is sold to our employers for a meager wage. This belittling salary incarcerates us in this system as we are barely able to make ends meet and therefore must continually barter our every hour for meaningless work. This is certainly not how I want to spend my time.
Life as we typically conceive it is defined as the sequence of experiences beginning at our birth and ending at our death. The entirety of our life is known as our lifespan, measured in years, which is a unit of time. So from a conventional point of view, our time is our life, as there can be no life outside of the time we spend existing on Earth. In this light, the way in which we choose to spend our time is of supreme significance. It is this choice that determines whether we enjoy the “Good Life” or wallow in a perpetual despair. Prussian philosopher Friedrich Nietzche asks us to ponder The Heaviest Weight in his essay titled “The Gay Science”. It can be summarized by the question, “Do you will this once more and countless times more?” This poignant provocation urges us to consider how content we would really be with the way we live our lives if we had to relive this moment over and over. Nietzche refers to this concept as “the heaviest weight” because it demonstrates the degree to which we are responsible for our own fate. Living life with this awareness requires us to be diligent and mindful and exposes the futileness in blaming others for our own circumstances. Nietzche’s idea has helped influence my conception of the “Good Life” by further validating the importance of how we choose to spend our limited time.
My conception of the “Good Life” involves a deep sense of investment, both in actualizing my own potential and in the context of investing in the larger community. It is ultimately utilitarian in principle, with the primary motivation to maximize happiness for the greatest number of beings while simultaneously minimizing as much suffering as possible. Like Chris McCandless, I believe the “Good Life” requires real freedom, the ability to express who we are without the constraints or pressures from society. It contains the possibility to create ourselves anew each moment and through this renewal we can stay true to our unique fluctuating nature. Our time on Earth will eventually run out. We can either chase after the elusive American Dream or decide that life is too short waste in pursuit of meaningless goods, too valuable to exchange for a minimum wage, and too precious to be reduced to a machine serving the interests of the system.
Jeremy Rifkin envisions an empathic civilization: