Self-Reliance: A Philosophy of Disengagement?

In his famous essay Self-Reliance, Emerson laments the stifling of individual thought and creativity by the larger social matrix within which every individual is situated. "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members," he argues, suggesting that achieving personal fulfillment requires disengaging from society and embracing physical and intellectual solitude. It's an easy criticism to make for a financially stable Harvard University graduate descended from a leading Boston family. Unencumbered by the pursuit of money or the procurement of food, medicine, or shelter, Emerson wrote from a standpoint of financial and social privilege unimaginable to most of his contemporaries. And his writing shows it. A well-educated white male with landholdings and steady employment, Emerson could afford to spend time thinking about how man is "clapped into jail by his own consciousness," how virtues are "rather the exception than the rule" and how "truth is handsomer than the affectation of love." Profound, incisive, and thought-provoking, Emerson's writings are nonetheless the musings of a man with few concerns aside from personal fulfillment and the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity. Underlying Emerson's call for individuality and self-reliance is an insidious assumption that individuation and self actualization are universal priorities for all people. This couldn't be further from the truth: while giving voice to the "divine idea which each of us represents" is surely a worthy aspiration, the reality of most individuals' lives precludes placing high priority on such esoteric, self-centered goals. In truth, one's ability to focus on self actualization is a direct function of one's material circumstances. Contrast Emerson with his fellow New Englanders at the turn of the 19th century. In a society predominated by farmers and laborers, concerns about "the relations of the soul to the divine spirit" were surely secondary to the five hungry children at home, the broken furnace in winter, or the sick mother in need of medicine. Indulged once a week during Sunday services, these questions of existence, individuality, and the divine were a release from--not an engagement with--the realities of everyday existence. Aside from glossing over the role of privilege in determining an individual's capacity to prioritize connecting with his inner genius, Emerson's Self-Reliance rests on a second controversial assumption: that our genius comes exclusively from within and is obscured by the "noise" of the society that surrounds us. In reality, the opposite is true: while every individual holds the capacity to think creative, ingenious thoughts, it is only through our interaction with external people, ideas, and institutions that we are able to fully discover our genius. Emerson of all people should have known this: having spent four years as an undergraduate at Harvard and additional time at Harvard's divinity school, Emerson experienced firsthand the value of argument and exchange in the formation of ideas and worldviews. Indeed, Emerson's own genius and non-conformity were undoubtedly informed by his interactions with professors, peers, and established intellectual traditions. The problem with Emerson's vision of individual genius is that it leaves no room for discursive exchange. In reality, it is only through the expression of our personal ideas to others that we are able to fully discover what these ideas are. Social structures--and the discursive exchanges they facilitate--are instrumental in bringing clarity and focus to the ideas that emerge from each individual's inner genius. In confining genius to each individual's psyche and calling on individuals to prioritize non-conformity above all else, Emerson dismisses political action, social progress, and intellectual discourse as distractions to the more important goal of actualizing inner genius and communing with the divine. In so doing, he presents a vision for a society marked by political apathy, social disengagement, and a lack of intellectual exchange. Self-Reliance is compelling because it lays out a radical path toward individual actualization that few had before considered. But in the end, achieving individuality--like turning on, tuning in, and dropping out--is not worth abandoning the very social and political structures that allow individuality to flourish. Self-reliance may be useful as a starting point from which to enter larger social and political systems, but it cannot be an end in itself.