Friday, March 5, 2010

In Praise Of Self-Reliance

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. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. 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." 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 am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him: "Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home." Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it,—else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. 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. Then, again, do 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 and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. Again, this is an article that animates us to live our life independently. I wish this blog many young readers who eminently need this encouragement. For me, as a senior, Emerson´s question “Are they my poor?” is interesting. One has to make a clear decision about who are and who are not your poor. I try to confirm on some specified criterias. There is one, for instance, very simple: To the dozens of beggars in the cities, I give some coins, but only to those who are playing a music instrument, and often I have a small conversation.

  2. I didn't expect me Emerson to be the author of this darwinistic praise of self-fulfillment, I was expecting a completely unknown name of a brilliant person which only in a late publication did reveal his thaughts.

    Saulus of Tarsus became paulus. "Paulus" is the latin word for "little".

    His doctrine is the exact opposite of Emerson's. Paulus was very sceptical about self-fulfillment.

    He - and Martin Luther as well - were therefore labeled with some terminus technicus of psychopathologic semiologia by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm whose books sold very well in the seventies and whose doctrine you can notice today behind every corner therefore. Usually Hermann Hesse and Erich Fromm are the sweet prophets of self-fulfillment. When I expressed my scepticism concerning self-fulfillment during the seventies, noone would agree with me. The belief that man is fundamentally good and can only be good if he has the opportunity to realize and fulfill himself, then was very strong, after 1968. I remember when I asked my pastor during our preparing lessons for the confirmation, what he thaught of a person which only through murder could get to self-fulfillment. He answered that knowone could get to self-fulfillment by murder.

    But while reading several of Fromm's books I always missed in decisive points really convincing reasonings. After all Fromm is a dwarf in comparison to Luther, not to speak of a giant like little Paul.
    Now Emerson provides a much better and more convincing reasoning because at least he thinks things to the end of bitterness.

    My conclusion is the opposite - as usual a complementing opposite - of cs's conclusion. While reading this long sight viewing road I had several associations of thaught. One was that this kind of wisdom is not good for young people. Today everything what is allowed is allowed after 18 years of restrictions. If I remember well, Elie Wiesel tells us on the first pages of "Night" that to study the jewish mystic one has to be at least 30 years old. The romans considered "adolescens" a 35 year old man, or even a 40 year old man, depending on the sources. To contemplate and reflect on the Shoah one should as well not be too young. It needs rare maturity.
    And I think Emerson's wisdom is not a "nutriment" but a "spice". I myself am not senecissimus, I am only becoming slowly and gradually senior since time passes for everyone, but I am trying to remain Puer Aeternus.

    I therefore agree obviously with cs, but with the remark, that Emerson's teaching is only a "spice" - but a spice which is useful, especially in bad times! - and that everything is a question of the right measure.

    A question of the right measure, of gradual revelation. and after after all, my conclusion is very banal, it is the old liberal conclusion: my liberty ends where the liberty of my next begins.

    As "nutriment" - believe me - little Paul is always good.

    "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." This sentence is the strongest part of Emerson's assertions and the one which really needs strength. But never forget that this can be the maxim of Bernardo Provenzano as well. And don't believe the simple-minded scholars which tell you that the great monsters of history were sick.

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