Self Reliance and other Essays

Self Reliance‘Every man is an impossibility, until he is born; everything impossible, until we see a success.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson rocks. I’d read about Emerson in Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and made a note to find out more about this polymath of the 19th Century. Reading his essays on Self Reliance, History and his controversial address to the Harvard Divinity School is a brain-searing experience.

Emerson, a minister himself, was the ultimate non-conformist. He argued that relying on the words of another, be they priest or parent, was a barrier rather than a bridge to God. ‘Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what David or Jeremiah or Paul. We shall not set so great a price on a few texts, or on a few lives.’ If we are merely repeating what we learn without engaging our own intellect, without searching for God on our own terms, then our beliefs have nothing to do with a true knowledge of God but instead are based on whatever we happen to learn and interpret from those around us, who likewise learned their lessons by rote from their elders.

Emerson also had little time for a strict reliance on the Bible, he felt that it kept Christianity in stasis forever looking backward. “The stationariness of religion, the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed. . . indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that he speaketh, not spake.” Instead he saw a living, personal relationship with God independent of others’ thoughts or intervention as the only possible course.

Emerson’s views ranged further than just religion, promoting the importance of action as the true measure of man. He urges us to challenge everything, to accept no idea as fact until we have explored it ourselves, but at the same time to see the unity inherent in the world. To trust ourselves to be our own taskmaster, to follow our own star and act as we would in solitude when among the crowds, this is his lesson and I would embrace it wholeheartedly were it not for a sneaking suspicion that Emerson’s spirit would disapprove of my implicit acceptance of his words without challenge. . . .