‘Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions.
I will be Light-hearted as a bird, and live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart,
I hear continually his voice therein.’
Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is unfortunate that Emerson’s essay on ‘Self-Reliance’ is popularly revered in our time as a defence of ‘rugged individualism’, as a promotion of the individual being totally independent from the outside. The truth, however, is quite to the contrary, for when read properly the end and aim of ‘Self-Reliance’ is a social philosophy rather than a campaign for selfism. The essence of Emerson’s intuition behind self-reliance may be found in a letter to his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson in 1827, who he described as a ‘spirited and original genius in her own right’, and his ‘earliest and best teacher’. The two regularly wrote letters to each other discussing matters of philosophy and religion, and for Emerson his aunt’s letters and journal entries spanning more than fifty years would become one of his ‘most important books.’ Like most of their letters, the letter in question ranges widely in its themes from the nature of the intellect to the mechanisation of art. But the relevant section reads in part:
‘I preach half of every Sunday. When I attended church on the other half of a Sunday, and the image in the pulpit was all of clay, and not of tunable metal, I said to myself that if men would avoid that general language and general manner in which they strive to hide all that is peculiar, and would say only what was uppermost in their own minds, after their own individual manner, every man would be interesting.’
Quoted in James Elliot Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Page 133–4.
It was this problem — the problem of hiding behind old inherited texts rather than engaging with ‘the divine spark within’ — that fractured his relationship with the Church, to the extent that he increasingly found the ceremonies and traditions of the Church to be meaningless in contrast to, as he writes, ‘that divine principle that lurks within, and of which life has afforded only glimpses enough to assure me of its being.’ And so in 1832, after much contemplation, Emerson resigned from the ministry and set sail for a tour of Europe. He reflected that, ‘in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry.’, by which he meant that in order to experience God it is necessary ‘to go alone… and to dare to love God without mediator or veil…trust thyself.’ For he believed that if religion is to survive at all then it cannot rely on past authority; it cannot continue asking people to love God through scripture and the clergy but must encourage a private and vital experience of the Lord through the heart.
Charles Emerson worried for his cousin and wrote a letter saying that he had done too much ‘for the expression of individual opinion.’ From Charles’ perspective he could not understand why Emerson would give up a respectable social position as a minister and a secure and decent salary. ‘Things seemed to be flying to pieces,’ Charles wrote to Aunt Mary. But he did not see what Emerson saw: freedom from the boundaries of the ministry with the chance to live deliberately and cultivate his character and art; the chance to become his own creator, his own man. But with this decision to leave the ministry Emerson had made himself an outcast, a rebel for a purpose which he could yet not see, and he admitted that inside he was scared — ‘the terrible freedom!’. But he maintained his original conviction and promised to himself in one of his poems that:
‘I will not live out of me
I will not see with others’ eyes
My good is good, my evil ill
I would be free.’
Freedom was the guiding principle throughout Emerson’s life; it was an impulse which he always abided by. What he wanted was to do his own thinking without constraint or limitation and in solitude. For this ambition he had to escape from opposition for a time in order to liberate himself from the beliefs and worldview that had thus far hindered his autonomy. He believed that true freedom is the ability to think for oneself, to lead oneself to independence; that one achieves his ‘manhood’ by standing firm and honest with his truth. This may be helped by solitude which, in the right circumstances and with the right character, gives birth to what is original and genuine in the mind, and which is necessary if one is to practice understanding and trusting one’s own intuition. Thus, those who do not wish to belong to any institution and would be non-conformists are by nature solitary figures and prefer their own company. As Emerson writes:
‘There are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.’
Emerson, Self-Reliance, Page 134.
What he had discovered for himself was that if one honestly explores his own depths to its greatest extent, he will arrive at conclusions that are not narrow, self-centred, and restricted, but are universal and relevant to every human being. For we collectively share a ‘common heart’; within each of us is the soul of the whole, the over-soul. And by reflecting upon our inner world we transcend ourselves and discover truths which are true for the entire society. This capability has been gifted to every man, but the problem, as Emerson writes, is that most men do not trust themselves, are afraid to speak as they think, and cower behind the authority of men who are not qualified but with brute force make themselves heard. However, the man of genius abides by the natural spontaneity that comes up within him, and never hesitates or second guesses himself; he speaks what flashes through his mind with faith that his words have come from a higher source. As Emerson writes:
‘To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost — and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.’
Emerson, Self-Reliance, Page 132.
This principle would inform his own work as an independent writer. In Emerson’s mind, a true writer, an artist, does not merely write what he knows, repeating facts and figures and dead information. But he gives us himself, his heart and soul, such that when we finish his book we feel we know the author without having met him. In giving himself he would access that universal sense which speaks universal truths, and which sooner or later appeals to every man’s heart.
Emerson’s idea of individualism, therefore, is transcendentalist and idealist; it seeks the welfare of society by discovering the universal within the individual. Only from real individuals can true community form. The individual who has risked the fight with society and not been overcome by it is the purest outlet for the expression of the over-soul, of that spring of ancient wisdom and creativity. He alone has a genuine claim to the inner certainty which makes him capable of self-reliance.
Robert D. Richardson JR., Emerson: The Mind On Fire, Pages 125–127.