Due September 29, 2008
The first thing I noticed about Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance," was that it has an unusually low words-to-content ratio. Take, for instance, the following quote: "I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued advisor, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church." This sentence boils down to "When I was young I was asked a question by a respected religious man." Thirty-one words change into fourteen with no damage done to Emerson's content or meaning. Emerson is guilty of the writing sin of sesquipedalian loquaciousness.
The second thing I noticed is that there are some awkward implications in Emerson's text. "He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness," he says in the second paragraph. This reeks to me of the philosophy that, to use a phrase that is as fitting as it is clichéd, the ends justify the means. This is a philosophy I find disgusting at its best and terrifying at its worst. In addition, the tenth paragraph implies that members of a group are merely mindless extensions of the group itself, a degradation of the worth and uniqueness of the individual I find demeaning and disgusting. "If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument" is roughly as meaningful and accurate as "The French are a bunch of surrender-monkeys" or "Americans are just a bunch of gun-toting hicks." Everyone identifies with a group. There are no exceptions to this. Even someone who claims to identify with nobody else is merely identifying with the other nonconformists who try too hard.
Emerson implies that people are like sheep, easily led and easily commanded. He offends me with this assertion. I agree that individuals should find their own values and views, but to imply that an individual is superior who dissociates himself from groups is superior to an individual who associates himself with a group, to say that those who do not follow are like personal divinities, standing above the unwashed, ignorant masses, is absurd. First of my two major complaints is that Emerson is being highly elitist. No man should be put up on a pedestal for his views and attitudes. Second is that by putting words to his views, anyone who tries to avoid conformity because they read "Self-Reliance" is also conforming, but to Emerson's ideals instead of someone else's. Essentially, he would create a "more-enlightened-than-thou" clique of "nonconformity conformists" who see themselves as God's chosen mouthpieces on Earth. Emerson insults to the meaning of individuality itself, in my eyes.
Others among of his statements are patently ridiculous. Take, for instance, this gem from the twenty-first paragraph.
"Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions, or rather much more readily; for, they do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time, all mankind, - although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun."
The audacity of his arrogance astounds me. He is so blinded by his insistence on his own originality and the truth of his vision that he cannot see his own unjustifiable elitism. He says if he sees a trait, all mankind will someday see it. Who is he to say that the trait another man sees will not push his vision aside? This is not, however, the worst of his hypocrisies and elitism and demeaning of others. He says in the twenty-third paragraph that "We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of granddames and tutors, and, as they grow older, of the men of talents and character they chance to see…." He is, essentially, saying that every man falls into one of two categories: those "of talents and character" and those who weakly and unsuccessfully imitate such men.
Emerson, all flowery unneeded language aside, shows in "Self-Reliance" his rampant and unchecked elitism and debases the value of the individual through his attempts to place nonconformity on a pedestal when he himself is simply begging people to follow his views. He does not want people to be self-reliant; he wants them to rely on his ideals. He suggests that the people around us are merely automatons until such a time as they subscribe to his views and opinions. He demonizes society at various points as a destroyer of individuality, a collection of "emphatic trifles" from men who "possess the power to annoy him," and a collection of ignorant hordes of people who should "wish to please him." He displays a predilection for amorality, anarchy, and even selfishness. His mindset has its merits but he shows no desire for any sort of limitation to it, and like all forms of extremism, his essay shows disturbing leanings. There is no less danger in the loss of society than the domination of society over all individuality, but Emerson does not see this. In the end, Emerson strikes me above all, at least in "Self-Reliance," as an elitist who is naïve enough that he cannot see he's an elitist, preaching conformity to his philosophy of nonconformity.