Anyone reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay “Self-Reliance” (1841) for the first time is likely to be taken by his call to us, his Dear Readers, to trust in ourselves, be our own persons, arrive at our own insights. He writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” And no surprise that the language Emerson uses is so gripping. He was a Unitarian minister so his essays have a grand style to them. I could easily imagine these essays or something like them being read in front of a church congregation and inspiring those people just as they still do today. The main idea that underlies “Self-Reliance” and other works by Emerson is what philosopher Charles Taylor has called the Ethics of Authenticity, which involves individuals seeking the good life for themselves, on their own terms.
That the Ethics of Authenticity is the implicit thesis to Emerson's essay is undeniable when we look at representative passages that encourage us to follow our own path and arrive at intellectual and moral virtues on our own terms. Emerson writes that in the work of so-called great men and women, we will read insights that we have had ourselves, if only we take a moment to reflect on the fact. He writes,
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.
Recognizing our own thoughts in the thoughts of “bards and sages” will remind us of how much wisdom we already possess and should inspire us not to conform to the conventions of our society and our traditions but to bring to them our own original inspiration.
Recognizing our thoughts in the words of great figures of the past could be one sort of tipping point to lead the sorts of lives we above all see fit, but Emerson believes that for each individual there could be still other tipping points, which come in the form of a kind of intellectual and moral maturity. He writes,
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the convention that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universal is full of good, 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.
It is, according to Emerson, through the exercise of our own creative energies, that we discover who we are and what we can do, but we cannot know unless we trust these creative powers and put them to use.
Emerson has little good to say about society in contrast to the individual. He believes that society is anathema to the Ethics of Authenticity, what he calls “self-reliance,” believing, trusting, relying on oneself to lead the life one wants. Emerson writes,
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone 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. [Society] loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Being self-reliant, in contrast, is about not conforming to these social norms. "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Emerson's ideal of self-reliance is a celebration of the individual par excellence.
When we read passages like the ones above, we are probably faced with one of two kinds of intuitions. One kind of intuition tells us that we too feel compelled as he does to praise the individual in all his pursuits above all others because this is after all what we want for ourselves. We want to be able to pursue the good life on our own terms, without interference from others, without being forced to meet someone else's ideal of the good life. We can freely make use of the goods that our society presents us, to be sure, but it is ultimately up to us to do what we want with our lives. Indeed, on one reading of Socrates's advice, he encouraged just such a form of psychological egoism: Not only do we seek what is good for ourselves but we ought to be free to pursue what is good for ourselves.
The sort of objection we might have to this intuition is met by a second, competing intuition we might have. There is also something alarming or off-putting about Emerson's self-reliance. Taken at face value, Emerson’s claims appear to throw aside social norms and traditions too readily, as if they have nothing to teach us about how we ought to live. And furthermore we have all met people who seem to operate off of some conception of how to live like Emerson's who have no idea what they're doing in life and go around making trouble for the rest of us. Extreme cases come in the form of criminals or sociopaths, who act without conscience, and the milder cases can be seen in the likes of people who have no qualms about lying or cheating to get what they want or who flout convention just for its own sake.
Lest the Reader think I am being unfair to Emerson, “Self-Reliance” contains several passages that would attest to a belief that the individual is so important that intellectual, moral, and legal norms ought to have no bearing on individual behavior. He writes,
No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he.”—“I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.
This flouting of any sort of norm extends for Emerson to putative obligations to help the poor, for example, and to contribute to public goods:
[D]o not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousand-fold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb to give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
No one, in Emerson's view, ought to tell us what to do with our money, our resources, or are lives. We are free to lead them any way we wish, trusting in our own virtues.
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 it 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.
It is easy enough to argue that these notions are self-evident. But is it possible to square the competing notions that (A) we ought to, with Emerson, favor the individual's ability and right to make his own choices while paying little heed to convention, and (B) the suspicion that there will always be those who, neglecting social, moral, and legal norms, act to his own detriment, or worse, to society's detriment? Earlier I said that Emerson's ideal of self-reliance is a kind of formulation of the Ethics of Authenticity, which states that we get to decide what the good life is for us, and no tradition, society, or government can tell us what that is. Arguably and ironically, the Ethics of Authenticity is the tradition that most of us living in contemporary, Western society believe, whether we know it or not. Nowadays it is mainstream to believe that no one ought to tell us how to lead our lives when we begin to have certain freedoms curtailed. Think of how people would feel in the United States if, say, the draft were re-instituted for military service. Right or wrong, there would be a public outcry. This is because most Americans would argue that mandatory military conscription violates our ability to decide for ourselves what we want to do with our lives.
The Ethics of Authenticity is inescapable, and Emerson's particular iteration of it with the concept of self-reliance—a refusal to accept an obligation to conform to social norms in formulating our decisions about the good life—is so widely accepted as to be futile to militate against. Nevertheless, there is value in exploring the particular traditions and norms that Emerson does believe are valuable in order to help us decide what he thinks is important. This in turn might be helpful in making up our minds for ourselves about what a good life amounts to.
Taylor refines these concepts in The Ethics of Authenticity (1992) when he writes,
…authenticity (A) involves (i) creation and construction as well as discovery, (ii) originality, and frequently (iii) opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what we recognize as morality. But it is also true... that (B) requires (i) openness to horizons of significance (for otherwise the creation loses the background that saves it from insignificance) and (ii) a self-definition in dialogue. That these demands may be in tension has to be allowed. But what must be wrong is a simple privileging of one over the other, of (A), say, at the expense of (B), or vice versa.
In other words, the Ethics of Authenticity is about creation, originality, and opposition to norms within the context of pre-existing ideas. It is a stand taken in a long dialogue concerning the role of the concepts used. And Emerson's own ideal involves a background assumption about how human nature works.
Creation, originality, and nonconformity in the form of self-reliance ought and can arise in an individual vis-a-vis mass society, the church, the State, and other institutions because human beings are endowed by their Creator with moral and intellectual capacities that function best in a free environment. Emerson takes a strong stance on the side of the primacy of the individual's decisions over and against institutions. He makes clear why this is so. Emerson's admonition for us to trust our own morality against anything thrown up by society lapses into moral relativism—unless we are aware that people, in their natural environments, can interact perfectly well because we are endowed with moral and intellectual instincts toward the greater good. These instincts play out best, Emerson argues, in a context in which they have little to no constraints. This view of human nature clarifies Emerson's ideal of self-reliance. He writes,
We live in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or absence is all we can affirm. Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed.
Emerson advises that we follow our own moral sense and enact the principles that we see fit. Better this way with respect to our traditions and norms than to err by accepting such traditions and norms blindly.
If it were not for the endowment of this moral and intellectual sense (which Emerson thinks is endowed by God), would Emerson be so quick to encourage us to be self-reliant? I think if Emerson did not believe in moral and intellectual instincts he would not have encouraged self-reliance. But to imagine human beings incapable of moral and intellectual strength would be to imagine a different world. We can assume that we have these instincts, otherwise we would not be able to so readily make intellectual and moral decisions across the wide range of situations we already do. Emerson's self-reliance is important, therefore, for helping us understand the shaping of an American ethos, and the Ethics of Authenticity more generally helps inform our contemporary understanding. As Charles Taylor writes, The Ethics of Authenticity “points us towards a more self-responsible form of life. It allows us to live (potentially) a fuller and more differentiated life, because more fully appropriated as our own. There are dangers... But at its best authenticity allows a richer mode of existence” compared to alternatives.