Emerson, Self-Reliance and Education: Learning to Be Yourself

Yesterday morning I sat down to write but my mind was elsewhere. It was a sunny, windless day, and that morning freshness still hung on the trees around my house. I closed my laptop, put on walking shoes, and drove to the base of a walk I’ve been wanting to do for a while, the Red Rocks and Tip Track loop in Wellington. I took a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays with me and sat down on the grass just before the peak to read his essay Self-Reliance.

It seemed a fitting place to read the essay, somehow disconnected from the city and from other people. I’d been walking for a couple of hours and had not seen a single other person, nor could I see any of the city from where I sat. We hear ourselves best in solitude, Emerson says: “Do not seek yourself outside yourself”. Listen to what your mind tells you when free of influence, and then take those thoughts unchanged to the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Self-Reliance and education
Sat here for an hour or so reading Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

Self-Reliance is said to be the essay that expounded a uniquely American philosophy. It encapsulates a pioneer spirit, the idea that you can be or do anything if you believe it in your mind. (Obama recently cited it as an important book for him.) The essay is not usually spoken of as an educational essay, but read in this light, Self-Reliance presents an ideal view of what education should help us to be and to do. It is a yardstick against which we can measure the extent to which we live up to education’s promise; it is a goal for self-aware students to strive towards in our own education.

Emerson begins Self-Reliance by commenting on real genius, and noting that success follows from believing your own mind:

“To believe in your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought it rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgement.”

We spend too much time obscuring our own thoughts and beliefs in order to please others. School, for the most part, is social acclimatisation. We learn what we should and should not say implicitly, before we understand why we should or should not say it. We become used to norms of speech and hide anything that we think and which we have not heard someone else say.

Now of all times, with a Mr. Trump in the White House, is perhaps the time to note that Emerson’s argument is not a license to be vitriolic or offensive merely because you believe it; decency and morality still apply. But we should not be afraid of saying something merely because it is not normally said, or because it might put us one rung lower on the social ladder.

The kind of thought that Emerson is talking about is individuality and intelligence—reflections on the world and on being which we have but think we should not speak of. What made people like Moses, Plato and Milton great, Emerson says, is that

“They set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. 

In every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humoured inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”

When we hold an opinion contrary to the majority we should not dismiss it simply because it is not the norm. This is, in a sense, the paradox of eminence: you do not become great by saying what everyone else was saying, but to say something great that no one else was saying requires bravery against the opinions of the majority. Emerson is telling us to listen to our own minds even when they say things that others are not. “Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense”—trust your judgement, because the majority hold the majority opinion merely because it is easy and comfortable.

“These are the voices [those of our own genius] which we hear in solitude”, Emerson says:

“But they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one 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.”

In thinking of our own education we can’t help but see the joint-stock company Emerson speaks of. We are taught—and have taught ourselves—to conform. Conformity pays dividends, to continue the company analogy. We get good grades, we get praise, we get a good job, we make good money, and so on. Self-reliance—or speaking our own genuine thoughts—will merely put us at odds with the majority of people, or even put us in difficulty in the task of earning a living.

But the educational ideal is self-reliance, helping every person to become who he or she is capable of becoming. Socrates’ exhortation that the unexamined life is not worth living is itself a kind of self-reliance; to rely on ourselves, we must know ourselves. Socrates was even put to death for speaking his mind, for being self-reliant. And Plato, who told us of Socrates, is where a tradition of genuinely liberal education stems from.

We have that ideal of self-examination and self-reliance (the two go together), but we have the reality of conformity and consistency. For many of us, college is a process of unlearning the conformity we’ve been taught up until this point; for others, it is a consolidation of conformity, planning one’s life out along those lines. We cannot expect to become independently thinking people by merely taking the education we’re given; we need to fight to educate ourselves if we are to learn to be self-reliant.

If you want to be self-reliant and trust your own mind, not participating in the vanities of society, you’ll simply have to put up with discomfort—“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” What we need to do, according to Emerson, 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 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.”

Indeed it all seemed clear to me in solitude on the top of a peak overlooking the sea and mountains. But we do not live in solitude. And our real task in educating ourselves (as opposed to being educated, which seems incompatible with self-reliance) is to come to terms with how we might trust our own minds and yet live with others. Emerson’s self-reliance is one extreme; he was “whipped” for it by society indeed, being widely criticised for many of his lectures at Harvard. The absolute conformity of others simply wanting what is easy and comfortable is the other extreme. But most philosophies of living are about finding a middle-way, “a compromise between”, as Seneca said, “the ideal and the popular morality.”

Our own self-reliance does not require Emerson’s extreme self-reliance; it is about our own self and being reliant upon it, not merely following his extreme interpretation. But total conformity does not involve the self at all. And so we must discover our own way of relying upon our selves.

Taking a long walk in the wilderness, as I found, was a good place to start with that end in mind. It can clear the head, give us perspective, allowing us to return to others not shut off from the world, but more sure of where we stand in it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson essays and Self-Reliance

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