Without Self-Reliance

February 16, 2013

American Exceptionalism, Culture

The prophet of the greatest American virtue warned us.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the essay Self-Reliance, wrote that,

there is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that… no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.  The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

To put it more familiarly, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

But what if that “time in every man’s education” never arrives?  This is no small point.  Emerson assumed that the time would come.  Emerson takes the moment tautologically.  For him, the definition of becoming a man, the moment of becoming a man, arrives with the realization of the need to be self-reliant.  Conversely, anyone who depends, or waits, or looks to any other for his needs and fulfillment is, by definition, not a man.

The education Emerson refers to is not at all academic.  There is no degree than an ivied university can bestow.  It is an education in life, complete with an awareness of reality, and the dispensation of many illusions.  Slogging, as we are, through an era of prolonged adolescence, where even the societal standard-bearers from the “baby boom” era maintain remnants of childish ways, the Emersonian education never seems to arrive in some.  What then?

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.  The virtue in most request is conformity.  Self-reliance is its aversion.

As Emerson makes apparent, the genius of America is that liberty and individuality are celebrated, at least to a far greater degree than in other societies.  As society pushes immature conformity on its members, Nature rewards what Emerson delightfully calls “good-humored inflexibility,” that is, fidelity to the fiery individuality gifted each of us from God.

American conformists look abroad for their education, writes Emerson, and with them the exceptional qualities of America are washed away toward distant standards.  These men, “plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves,” because man and society are oppositional forces.

There is little doubt that the education of self-reliance has eroded considerably over the past two or three generations.  The leaders of America today are speeding that erosion with increased societal preeminence and ethos of communitarianism.  Our political safety net has become an enrobing blanket protecting – perhaps – but also restraining.

Fewer persons than ever are arriving at their education.  The result is a shortage of men (and women) in the world.

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5 Comments on “Without Self-Reliance”

  1. Grumpa Joe Says:

    A brilliant piece of philosophy.


  2. Grumpa Joe Says:

    Reblogged this on Grumpa Joe's Place and commented:
    This is a great piece of wisdom based on the words of American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. It totally condones and appreciates American exceptionalism.


  3. J. Palmer Says:

    Nice piece.

    I tend to agree with your conclusion; however, it is pretty obvious that in America, both during Emerson’s lifetime and today, the “plot of land which is given to till” can vary extremely from one “farmer” to the next. Some are born with inherently rich soil (intelligence) and in locations where the sun shines and the rains fall (good supportive families); others are born with fallow soil which their environment (families, communities) have stripped bare of nutrients before the they had a chance to start tilling on their own.

    Are we to blame those born to lesser plots of land for not becoming men? Or are we to pity them? “Help” them with public assistance? Or pray for them to “learn how to fish”?



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