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Essay: Self-Reliance in the 21st Century

December 17, 2010


A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841

Self-Reliance is an essay I read in high school English literature. It was required reading on the group known as, the Transcendentalists – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. While I was very taken with Thoreau’s call to nature and civil disobedience, it is the message from Emerson’s famous essay that resonates with me more than ever today: be authentic, follow your passion and ideas, be consistent in your thinking.

“Who so would be a man, must be a non-conformist. 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.”

Indeed, there is no doubt integrity, soundness of mind, is perhaps the most important thing a person can develop. To be consistent in what we say and do. To be rooted in ethical values such that we are able to meet the hypocrisy within our society and attacks from without by those who are self-serving. To live in accordance with ones values and principals. This is what we need to develop within our 21st century world – how to think, how to promote ethical stances, how to encourage people to be authentic and self-actualized. Instead, we have gone off the rails, pursuing some delusional ‘growth’ economics and accordingly engaging in all sorts of unethical behavior plus following so-called leaders who are anything but consistent in their thinking and woefully lacking integrity. This is in direct opposition to what Emerson suggests, and so we are NOT self-reliant but are dependent, subject to, and worst of all, conformists who have set aside our American and Jeffersonian ideals of self-determination and liberty. When we abandon these core values it allows for the rise of oligarchs — the very type of wealth class that was given the boot and the guillotine in France during the Reign of Terror, less than 20 years after our own Declaration of Independence. Surely, the events of both American and French revolutions was much on the minds of the Transcendentalists, who developed an approach to how we can engage ourselves in our own life and in our open free society, not as abject rebels, but as authentic individuals who can improve upon our own lot in life and the lot of others through consistent thinking, authentic living, and applying our passions and ideas. i.e. through self-reliance.

Well, I doubt the everyday American is feeling very free these days when freedom has become dependent upon the nations economic circumstances and those who have stripped trillions of dollars of wealth from them. I would think people are feeling rather disenfranchised – and what are they disenfranchised from? Their own freedom to live as they choose – their inability to fulfill their destiny as embodied in their passions and ideas. Their inability to be self-reliant. Where these constructive passions are being hindered and blocked from expression, this then translates into frustration and anger and destructive action. This is not good for the individual, nor for our society as a whole.

What we find then is we are face to face with Emerson who informs us:

A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition as if every thing 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.

Yes, we must rout out the capitulation of Presidents. We must speak the rude truth of the matter. We must carry ourselves upright in the presence of opposition. We will not be self-reliant except that we do these things — the hard work of shaping our destiny else we forfeit who and what we are as Americans to the new oligarchy within.

What Emerson suggests is that we must do something very difficult — be our own person; take an ethical stance; insist on our own passions and ideas not to be sanctioned from some faux-leadership, but from within ourselves. Only when free men and women assert themselves can self-determination and self-reliance reemerge again in the independence of our will from the “coercion” of oligarchal forces. This is the challenge of our times.

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust himself for a task-master. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others.


Read Emerson’s Self-Reliance click here

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