Notes philosophy

Self Reliance Summary (6/10)

Self-Reliance was an essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In it, he explains to us why the answers we seek are not found in trusting authority, blind religious faith, or following convention. He impels us to look inwards – to understand that, the rules that govern society were constructed by human beings, they were not supernaturally ordained. You become bold by trusting yourself, you become original by following your instincts. Emerson distrusts the status quo but has full faith in the individual.

These 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.

The essence of manhood to Emerson was relying on oneself, standing up straight and voicing one’s own opinion, and not shying away from the truth by trying to accommodate the feelings of the collective. It is more important to be truthful than to be liked.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. 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.

And yet, Emerson understands the difficulty of maintaining one’s authenticity when thrown into the crowd. After-all, the crowd, by definition, outnumbers the individual. The crowd is overwhelming, and it will not easily tolerate members who refuse to conform.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide

The individual who manages to rebel against the crowd must have powerful qualities that endow him with the ability to do so. It is not a coincidence that so few people are able to stand out unapologetically, to follow their own ideals, rather than mimic someone else’s ideas.

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!

People are often afraid to say what they think because they are afraid of being wrong, but Emerson points out that seeking consistency is a task for fools. The “facts” that we believe are not absolute, they will change with time, and our understanding of these “facts” is in constant flux. It is silly to shy away from what you really think today, because you might say something different tomorrow. And it is equally unintelligent to assume that you have to maintain the same positions you did in the past, to save your image.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’

Many are ashamed of voicing their own opinion. We are taught to appeal to authority. If you do not have a title next to your time, then do not have the credibility to speak. But there is a beauty and honesty in accepting your present state, without neurotically seeking validation in every moment. There is no perfect moment to get to, and there was no perfect moment in the past to hold on to.

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today.There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

We are pressured into concocting a story that is in line with what others expect of us. It is more important to be accepted by others than by yourself. And, of course, there are reasons for this. People don’t want to be isolated. They want to fit in, they want to part of a group. But if we risk speaking truthfully, and saying what we really think, we will experience life more fully. We will be less afraid, and less anxious about the future. We will be at peace with the present.

I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy

Finally, Emerson’s core conviction can be traced to Stoicism or Buddhism. External events will not bring us happiness. While you may feel a sudden jolt of positive emotion when something good happens, the satisfaction you experience across life cannot depend on these external events, they must be grounded in your individuality – the truths you live by.

A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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