a conversation with Ralph Waldo Emerson :: on self-reliance

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Someone I greatly love and respect recently sent me a copy of Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance” as an expression of his basic instincts with regard to religion, power, and the study thereof. He asked for my thoughts on the matter—which is a rare enough event these days that I jumped at the opportunity. I thought I would share the comments more broadly. They come in two forms: 1.) Below is a summary of my basic feelings on the piece. 2.) By clicking here (On Self-Reliance), you can access a Word document that has my comments written in the margins of Emerson’s text. I would love to hear what others think of Emerson, or my take on his thought.
The creed that Emerson is preaching seems to me to be the perfect religious expression of the Romantic wing of the Enlightenment. He is attempting to be very counter-cultural, and I have no doubt that in his day he was perceived by many people to be quite radical. But what he is offering, I will suggest, is not counter-cultural but is only the expression of the liberal half of the culture. His adamant non-conformity only represents conformity to a broader tradition than the traditions he saw at hand. To do that claim justice would require elaborating further on the history that I only briefly mentioned in one of the notes, but maybe I can offer a few points.

What is radical about what Emerson has to say?: That we should all decide for ourselves and guide ourselves? That authority cannot be trusted? That anything outside our own experience is liable to be the expression of someone else’s attempt to control us? Again, that is only the expression of an attempt to get “back to the sources” back to the very beginning, the very root of human existence, to see the very beginning and so to see human life in its pure form. With such a vision (we imagine) we could live rightly. The Enlightenment has been the sustained attempt to think or to experience ourselves back to our own beginnings. It is a fundamentally religious endeavor. And that is why persons within the Enlightenment tradition find themselves perpetually at odds with religion—and perpetually drawn to explain it. On that note, Kant tried to keep religion, but he had to divorce it from philosophy. Hegel tried to keep religion and philosophy together (because he knew they couldn’t be separated) and he ended up declaring himself to be God! Marx was wise enough to know that religion had to be one of the first things to go in his utopia because it offered a competing meaning for human life. To go even further back, Plato wanted to banish poets from the Republic—stories are not good for ideal citizens. The best theologians have always recognized Western philosophy as another religion. Modernity itself is a religion of sorts, or a whole host of little sects if you’d rather. Romanticists think that they’ll plumb the depths of truth by living with their hearts wide open to the world, because they understand human beings as primarily an experiencing creature. Many of them ended up in very, very dark frames of mind, wearing a lot of scars. Idealist and rationalists sought to establish human beginnings by putting themselves in contact with (supposedly) universal Reason.

Here’s a bit of Bonhoeffer: “Thinking pounds itself to pieces on the beginning. Because thinking wants to reach back to the beginning and yet never can want it, all thinking pounds itself to pieces, shatters against itself, breaks up into fragments, dissolves, in view of the beginning that it wants and cannot want…. Critical philosophy may proudly renounce what it lacks the power to attain or else lapse into a resignation that leads to its complete destruction; either alternative stems from the same human hatred of the unknown beginning.”

The other side of this dynamic, and to my mind an equally unhelpful one, is an insistence on traditions and institutions for their own sake. Emerson and folks like him often have people to argue with who are little more than their mirror image on the other side of the same cultural movement. One side pulls while the other pushes. I may sound like I’m taking that other position (honestly, if I had to choose I might lean to that side at the moment). I hope that I am not being blind in the importance I place on tradition. There is no point in space “out there” where we can stand and objectively evaluate traditions from outside them. But after all that I’ve said, I am grateful to the Enlightenment for the notion that we should think as objectively as we can about different traditions. A big part of my decision to stay in the Christian tradition has been the help I’ve gotten from others in recognizing modernity as a tradition unto itself—and one that equally deserves evaluation.

All that to say, when Emerson urges “self-reliance” as the key to living well as a human being, I can’t help but hear him echoing a lot of other figures, and I’m not yet convinced that the religious option modernity has on offer is the best one available.

That’s not to say that I don’t love philosophy, nor that I don’t see value in studying it. But it often comes with its own account of history, reason, and what it means to be human—and when those presumptions are examined, what is taken to be “foundational” is no less “superstitious” than what is rejected out of hand. That realization is driving a lot of post-modern philosophy, or hyper-modern if you’d rather, and philosophy is literally consuming itself. I’m getting off track.

My main gripe with Emerson, besides what lies above [in the marginal comments], is not that he isn’t looking hard for truth. I just wonder if he is looking in the right places. He argues that truth can best be found within one’s self – apart from tradition, apart from history, apart from authority, apart from the advice (imitation) of others. But what is left of the “self” that Emerson describes? I’m not sure that the self can be understood outside of all the relationships that Emerson wants to strip away. And derivative of that, I’m not sure that he’ll find truth there. I don’t necessarily expect Emerson to come to a final agreement with me, but I’m not sure about the wisdom of searching for the meaning of history outside history. Looking for spiritual truth in lofty heights of personal experience and inward navel-gazing means that one will always miss Jesus, born in a rough and simple manger, died on a rough and simple cross, who lives still in the rough and simple realities of the world, and even communicates through the rough and simple realities of human habits, customs, and traditions.