Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, March 16, 2007


Over time some works tend to grow along with you. They contain more wisdom than you thought when you first read them. Shakespeare’s plays for example. Others tend to diminish over time and contain less wisdom than you thought. Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance” falls into this category. When I first read “Self-Reliance” in college I took Emerson’s aphorisms to be pearls of wisdom that one could use as a foundation to build a personal philosophy of life. Years later, reading the essay with more experienced eyes, many of those aphorisms turned out not to be pearls at all, but sometimes foolish and maybe even dangerous if taken literally by impressionable young people.

For one thing Emerson’s style is built on personal conjecture that sometimes turns out to be sheer nonsense. He states an opinion as if it was rock solid truth but many of his statements make more sense if you just rephrase them so they proclaim the exact opposite. For example, Emerson says “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.” What if someone said instead “that’s not genius, that’s lunacy”? What you truly believe in your own heart may, in fact, be true for all men. But it wouldn’t be true if your heart harbored the beliefs of, say, a sociopath. Emerson says “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts…” But wouldn’t it be more truthful if we said that in most works of genius we recognize things we’d never have dreamed of in a million years? Emerson says “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Perhaps. But it might be the case that society everywhere is more of a cooperative effort to promote the well-being of its citizens. Otherwise, what’s the point of living in a civilized social order?

These are prime examples of Emersonian wisdom which on closer inspection aren’t exactly pearls of wisdom. And one can point to other examples that show why the essay might be dangerous in the wrong hands. Emerson believes that “The nonchalance of boys who…would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature.” This is healthy? And how would most people react if a loved one came home one evening and announced “O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearance hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s…I must be myself…”? This is actually fairly common among college sophomores studying Philosophy 101 but it’s a less desirable trait in a grown man. According to Emerson, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” According to others, whoso would be a man must get a job and support himself and his family. Would Emerson consider it too conformist to hold down full-time employment?

Having said all that, Emerson does make some pretty good points in this essay. I heartily endorse his love of home: “let us not rove; let us sit at home...the soul is not a traveler; the wise man stays at home…Traveling is a fool’s paradise…our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.” These are pearls of wisdom. So is this one: “Thy lot or portion of life,” said the Caliph Ali, “is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it.” Unfortunately, the pearls are few and far between. And the few that we do find are hidden among numerous rocks and shoals of bad advice and foolish principles. Most college students and all immature readers should steer clear.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

What exactly is Emerson proposing that is so foolish? Is he advocating that young people burn down our institutions of government, or abolish all laws and traditions. No. He is merely agreeing with Polonius' advice to Laertes (Hamlet, Act II) when he says "to thine own self be true." In other words, pay heed to that inner (divine) voice of reason: your conscience, for that is where true wisdom lies, in the human intuition of grace. Now, it is possible we can be led astray by our conscience, if our conscience is poisoned with bad ideas. But Emerson is not talking about pathological liars or other rogues of misfortune. He is speaking to the average man of good will, who has sufficient means to distinguish right from wrong, and is unlikely to follow the path of revolution or anarchy.

The curse of democracy is the acquired habit of following a crowd in whatever foolish direction it moves, whether it be watching "American Idol" or marching to hang some unruly slave. The difference between justice and a lynch mob must rest with each one of us, with our unwavering belief that goodness must prevail over evil ("...surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life").

Yet, if we always submit to authority, accepting all manner of lies and deceptions which a corrupt administration proposes, then we fail in our civic duty. "A decent regard for the opinions of mankind" is not the same as a slavish disposition to believe everything we hear. God (or for you pagans, Prometheus) has given mankind reason and we are expected to use it. Moral judgment requires both a standard of good behavior, and the willingness to act when we find the boundaries which separate us from barbarism have been crossed. Otherwise, the res publica of our fathers surely degenerates into a confederacy of dunces, a pliant herd of bovines that are easily led from one poor pasture to another.

Emerson was right to place moral accountability on individuals because that is where it belongs. In the long run, if we as individuals fail to live up to, as Abraham Lincoln put it, the "better angels of our nature," then we can scarcely expect our neighbors or our government to do better.

-Domine dirige nos-

3/16/2007 12:13 PM  

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