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Aug 26, 2013

17 notes on Emerson's Self-Reliance

A few salient points gleaned from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

1. The self reliant person believes in himself and believes that what is true for him is true for all. He sets aside books and traditions, thinks his own thoughts. We recognize intuitive truths in great works of art, which teach us to trust those impulses and to withstand opposing voices. 

2. To envy others is ignorance; to imitate is suicide. You must recognize that you occupy a unique time and place on this earth, and nothing fulfilling will come to you until you cultivate your own natural powers. Nobody knows what’s best for you until you have tried it yourself. 

3. Trust yourself. Accept your place in the universe, your place in society and history. Let the divine nature stir within you. Don’t be timid about it. 

4. Look at children, babies, and brutes. They’re natural. They do not, like us, distrust their feelings, nor do they over-analyze their intentions. Their minds are undivided, unconquered. They don’t conform to anyone. 

5. Boys too are nonchalant and uncooperative in a healthy, innocent way. They don’t care about consequences or intents. They are independent, genuine. Grown men, however, are imprisoned by their consciousness. If you could regain some of that youthful moxie — “unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence” — you’d be a formidable individual. 

6. We tend to be naturally self reliant when alone, must less so among society. Society conspires against your manhood. It demands conformity. Its enemy is self reliance. Society doesn’t love reality or creativity. It loves names and customs (traditions, habitual living). 

7. To be a true man or woman, you must be a nonconformist. You can’t be held back in the name of “goodness”; a  true individual explores whether it be goodness. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” It is shameful how we capitulate to authority, to social pressure, to “dead institutions.” People who act decently, correctly, with good manners may be persuasive, but are they right? Are they, just below the good surface, malicious and vain? “Your goodness must have some edge to it — else it is none.” You may even have to defy your father and mother when genius calls. (Will you be willing?)

8. “Do gooders”, e.g. those who make a show of charitable deeds, are averse to the self reliant man. Good deeds are like an apology or penance for not living in the world. You won’t be a free spirit, strong willed and natural, so instead you make a spectacle of your good acts. The true individual cannot be concerned with what people think of his actions. 

9. I must do all that concerns me, not what people think I should do. This rule applies to your actions and your thoughts. You will always find those who think they know better than you, and know what’s good for you. It is easy to live their way, or the way society programs us to behave, “but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” 

10. When you conform to society, you SCATTER your force; it weakens your character. It drains energy from your proper life and the work nature has destined for you. Do what your nature tells you to do and you will reinforce yourself. Conformity is a game of blind man’s buff.  It binds the eyes, attaching yourself to a community of opinion not your own, thus you don’t think for yourself. Conformity turns you into an ass. 

11. Non-conformity will arouse displeasure and disapproval. Society doesn’t like to be threatened. The multitude can be powerful and scare you away from trusting yourself. 

12. The other scary force is consistency. 

13. Why should you be consistent with your past thoughts and deeds? Trust the present moment. What you feel and think right now. Trust your emotions. Don’t worry about contradicting yourself. 

14. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Speak what you think today; if tomorrow you contradict yourself, so what? Don’t be afraid of being misunderstood. You’re in good company: Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton (and we might add Lincoln, Gandhi, MLK Jr., etc.). “To be great is to be misunderstood.” 

15. Moreover, you can’t really violate your own nature. Despite the inconsistencies, your character will assume its own shape. 

16. The one thing you should be consistent about, however, is honesty. Being natural (true to your inner nature) and honest will always make your actions explainable. Conformity, however, explains nothing. Honor is not ephemeral; it lasts. 

17. Let’s hear the end of conformity and consistency. Let’s oppose mediocrity and contentment, defy custom and tradition and duty. A true Man is at the center of things. He is the measure of other people and events. In a conformist society, each person reminds you of everyone else. The man of character, reminds you of nothing else but him. He stands out and above his times.