Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Sin of Self-Reliance
Updated: May 22
In the United States, we are all the prisoners of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
“Ne te quaesiveris extra." (Do not seek for things outside of yourself.)
“Do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”
It all sounds so wonderful and fulfilling and perhaps, at the time that Emerson was writing, necessary. I know that Emerson is more complicated than I am giving him credit for. He was certainly not dismissive of relationships or of community, but he was certainly weary of them, perhaps in reaction to the hardened Puritan sublimation of the self to the needs of the community. He was guarded against the vicissitudes of men in power for fear of losing some critical individual core sense of self. For Emerson, the story begins at some profound intrinsic trust for what occurs deep inside the recesses of the human mind, because to trust oneself means to trust, most of all, the parts of us, our hidden instincts, that remain unknown even to our own selves.
He was certainly not dismissive of relationships or of community, but he was certainly weary of them, perhaps in reaction to the hardened Puritan sublimation of the self to the needs of the community.
And men, in particular, have been suffering from this flawed assumption for way too long.
Perhaps my criticism has something to do with a perversion of Emerson more than what he actually articulates, but he should still take some of the blame. From this gross reliance on one’s own worth and thoughts comes an assumption of superiority like no other. The myth of the singular brilliant mind, a scientist toiling away for years until he has that eureka moment, the hero on the battle field who defies his commander’s order but brilliantly and single handedly wins the war, the detective who follows his nose until he uncovers the murderer with sheer brilliance and instinct (disclaimer: Columbo, with the great Peter Falk, was one of my favorite shows growing up) this is the archetype of the successful man, the admired man, the man’s man. Self-possessed and singular.
The problem is that this reality misses the mark 90% of the time. We are deeply in relationship, constantly influencing and being influenced, interconnected to others, not just psychologically, but on a biological basis as well. We learn through a complex system of neural convergences and pathways called mirror neurons and systems that take someone else’s actions and goals, filtering them through our own social and biological constructs and turn them into representations, knowledge, abilities, passions and only then do we forge our own unique minds. All of this human development takes place because we are in relationship with others, parents, friends, community and educators. It is the male myth that we are independently created and emerge as who we are in some type of self generating vacuum. To put this another way, we are not alone, we need each more than we think.
All of this human development takes place because we are in relationship with others, parents, friends, community and educators.
The common notion that we, as educators, are supposed to be creating, “independent learners” is often misinterpreted through the American myth of the self generating man. We need to change the language to “independently dependent learners,” student who know, on their own, that they need others and others need them in order to be their best selves. Men, more than women, need to be allowed to scratch out the word “self” from the beginning of Emerson’s Self-Reliance. Just Reliance would be a much more useful and healthy way of framing the experience of school and education.