Self-Reliance

Emerson writes, in “Self-Reliance”—an essay that thrills me and stings me today just the same as it did when I first encountered it, nearly a decade ago—of the ultimate justification of self-reliance:

This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE. Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause, and it constitutes the measure of good by the degree in which it enters into all lower forms. (Essays and Lectures, Library of America, p. 272)

In another essay, he refers to this as the “Over-Soul”. Emerson believes that, by burrowing uncompromisingly into myself, I will find what is universal:

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. (p. 259)

It may be difficult to know that one’s present thought is universal:

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.

How can we tell that it is not mere whim? We can only tell in hindsight, but Emerson would have us trust that are present whims shall eventually reveal themselves as more than whim.

It is widely noted that, as Emerson’s thought progresses, the more metaphysical aspects of his view recede in importance (they never quite vanish). The final essay of The Conduct of Life ends with a vision of a solitary man alone among the gods—not celebrating with a universal community. Why this change?

I suggest it is because self-reliance, as an ideal, does not need the justification Emerson gives it. It is a post hoc papering over of real edge of self-reliance: that we should rely on our whims for no other reason than because they are ours. The over-soul serves no function in Emerson’s thought except to make it palatable: it is itself a mark of conformity. (I do not say Emerson was insincere on this point; it is so difficult, in the moment, to separate out the genuinely self-reliant from the spuriously conformist.)

Even early on, Emerson had glimpses of this:

On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,—“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.

And this is correct. Even if my truest thought is only my own, that is no reason not to rely on it. Let self-reliance be a stubborn defiance of an indifferent universe; it is as essential as if it were the one direct route to God. Indeed, in the latter case, it would be God who is vindicated.