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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Self-Reliance (Pt. 1)

I recently re-read Emerson's short essay, "Self-Reliance", and thought I'd share some my favorite quotes with some commentary (as usual).

"To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius."

"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. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs."

Self-reliance is averse to conformity. Conformity, by definition is the moulding of oneself to the shape or expectations of others (often a collective). I particularly like the last sentence of this quote. Societies love names and customs. Society loves to name things, because there is a sense of ownership and control in the act of naming. It can also give the false impression of having created the thing. How often have I heard students say something like, "Who created the circle?" As if any single person could claim to have created that majestic, infinite concept. Perhaps we can speak of the person who "discovered" it, and certainly someone gave it the name "circle" (and before him someone else called it something else, etc.). And in the naming it is easy to forget that we are mere puffs of smoke, who happen to grasp the ideal of a circle momentarily before being blown away, dispersed into oblivion, by the winds of time.

On the other hand, Emerson says that self-reliance loves reality and creators. The difference between the creator and the namer is vast. It's the distance between God and man. And while we Christians believe that God became man for our salvation, we must also hold simultaneously the awe-someness, the magnificence, the grandeur of God, never forgetting how far beyond our understanding God truly is.

"No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature."

"Truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, else it is none."

"I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony."

Brilliant. Modern society is rife with this idea that I should evaluate myself in the light of the opinions of others. Emerson says, "I am. And that is enough. I care not what others think or say about me. For they are not me." See the next quote as well for more supporting text.

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