Philosophy, Self-Development, Videos

Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Psychology of Self-Reliance

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The following is a transcript of this video.

“It is easy in the world to 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.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance)

Self-reliance, of the type alluded to by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the passage just quoted, is not a capacity we are born with, rather it is one which must be cultivated. In our childhood it exists as a dormant seed but as we mature into adolescence the first roots of it take hold. Whether the potential for self-reliance flowers or withers depends on the individual, but sadly in the modern world there are many forces impeding its development. “The virtue in most request, is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.”(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance)  In this video we will examine why self-reliance is such an underdeveloped capacity.

If there is one social institution most to blame for the lack of self-reliant individuals the modern schooling system would be a prime candidate. Spending well over a decade of our most formative years in this institution, we are not encouraged to develop autonomy, but instead trained in the art of obedience. We are not taught to explore, criticize, question, and play with ideas, but memorize, and regurgitate the dogmas of the day. This indoctrination leads many down a life-long path of dependency and servitude, and impedes the progress of even the most promising young minds.

“Our mind moves only on faith, being shackled and constrained to what is desired by someone else’s ideas, a slave and captive under the authority of teaching. We have been so subjected to leading-reins that we take no free steps on our own, our vigor and liberty are extinct.” (Montaigne, Of the Education of Children)

Most never outgrow the influence of their schooling, rather, they remain submissive to the demands of others is various subtle ways. For example, they never stray far from the belief system imposed on them by the schooling system, their family, peer group, religious sect, the media or the government, and thus perceive reality through a worldview that is not their own. As a result of ignorance, laziness, and cowardice, they prefer the certitude of psychological chains over the the ambiguity and tension of freedom. Even when they have their own opinion, they don’t voice it in the presence of others, but out of a fear of ridicule keep it to themselves. Their desire for acceptance and the respect of others far outweighs their commitment to the truth and hunger to speak their mind. This timidity and refusal to speak what they feel to be true stunts the development of their mind and renders their character weak and scattered.

“Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.”(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance)

One who is self-reliant, in contrast, values intellectual independence, and is “tortured more by the smallest strings than others are by chains.” (Nietzsche).  They liberate themselves from the beliefs imposed on them, and use their critical capacities to forge a worldview they can call their own. “I must Create a System,” wrote William Blake, “or be enslaved by another Man’s.” Believing, with Emerson, that “truth is handsomer than the affection of love”(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance), they are unafraid of the insults and contempt their opinions may incite, and undeterred by the standards of social and political correctness which keep most confined to a narrow range of belief and opinion.

“A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition…I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways…Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none.”(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance)

For most of human history our ancestors relied on maintaining homogeneity in belief and behavior to ensure all were tied to a common purpose and thus able to work together to survive in often harsh environments. Individuals could only stray so far from the accepted tribal paradigms without threatening in-group harmony, and those who did not “toe the line” were often punished with ostracism, exile, or death. In other words, for most of our history self-reliance was viewed not as an ideal to strive for, but as a curse to avoid.

“But during the longest period of the human past nothing was more terrible than to feel that one stood by oneself. To be alone, to experience things by oneself, neither to obey nor to rule, to be an individual – that was not a pleasure but a punishment; one was sentenced “to individuality”. Freedom of thought was considered discomfort itself.” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science)

In the modern day, far removed from the living conditions our ancestors were forced to endure, this sentiment lives on. Most today not only spend their life within the safe confines of the status-quo, but also chastise all who show signs of deviation from the norm. Therefore, those who choose to proceed upon the path of self-reliance must be prepared to endure hardship. Yet if able to persevere despite the struggle, one will eventually be able to discard the deep human need to obey and conform, and in the process attain the highest form of health there is.

“The individual has always had to struggle from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” (Rudyard Kipling, The Kipling Journal)

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Nikolaj Alexandrowitsch Jaroschenko 001
Ralph Hedley The tournament 1898
Thomas Cole - The Voyage of Life Childhood, 1840 (Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute)
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Joseph Highmore - Study for a Group Portrait - Google Art Project
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Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Dutch (active Leiden and Amsterdam) - Head of Christ - Google Art Project
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