Summary: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most well-known essay, “Self-Reliance” (1841), is the most eloquent examination of that most American of virtues: individualism. The “high priest” of 19th century Transcendentalism, and a widely read essayist and sought-after orator, Emerson was perhaps the most significant public intellectual of his day. Transcendentalism, while offering a critique on the spirituality of its time, and advancing theological positions (seeing divinity in nature and in the everyday; experiencing the physical and the divine as parts of one whole rather than as discrete entities), never presented itself as a religion. It was a philosophical, social, and political movement (especially noted for its ardent abolitionist convictions). Eighteenth-century romanticism saw society as a force for ill that corrupted the human person, especially through its institutions (think: schools and churches), Transcendentalism sought a corrective via human striving which could position the individual as “self-reliant.”
The essay, which weighs in at slightly over 10,000 words, is divided into three sections: self-reliance as a virtue (paragraphs 1-17), the individual’s path to self-reliance (paragraphs 18-32), and self-reliance mediated through society (because man is a social animal, and even a rugged individual must live within society, paragraphs 33-50). The value of thinking for oneself rather than accepting the doctrines handed down by others is the central theme of the essay, valuing individual experience over received wisdom (passed along via teachers or books). “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” he challenges his readers. “Great men have always done so.” This sentiment generates an allergy to conformity and the “terror” of consistency, producing the essay’s most famous passage:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.
(The anecdotes in which Rabbi Soloveitchik would enter the shiur room to-day only to completely dismantle yesterday’s explanation of a Gemara are too well-known to need repeating here, but their pertinence should be obvious.)
Why this is “The BEST”: Emerson’s manifesto will no doubt seem to be quite threatening to religious institutions (if not to religion per se), if not all authority structures, which value a degree of doctrinaire groupthink. Surely, his New England Calvinist neighbors were no Hasidim of Emerson. The following passage seems to contradict convictions we hold in high esteem as a faith community that demands a degree of conformity in belief and practice: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”
However, “Self-Reliance,” as his most ardent statement about the virtue of individualism, must be interpreted through the prism of Transcendentalism. Emerson’s convictions are grounded in the belief that all right actions proceed from the Divine. The focus on the “self” recalls Hillel’s aphorism: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I?” (Avot 1:14). Hillel’s couplet (which receives an added measure of moral urgency from its continuation—“If not now, when?”) bears meaning only through its coincidence of opposites: I can only be for myself only if I harness that self to the service of others. We must seek self-reliance, but, in Emerson’s words, “a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men.”
Modern sociologists such as Robert Putnam and philosophers such as Charles Taylor have underscored how modernity has “over-relied” on the self, squandering social capital and setting the “self” adrift without critical social mooring. These critiques make the careful reading of Emerson that much more critical. Writing in tribute to Columbia University historian and Jewish philosopher Joseph L. Blau, Rabbi Prof. Maurice Wohlgelernter (known to generations of his Yeshiva College English Lit. students as “The Reb”) observed that Blau found a kindred spirit in Emerson. Blau had demonstrated that Emerson’s goal of self-reliance was not for self-advancement or self-aggrandizement. Rather, it is the “very pivot on which Emerson’s individualism transforms itself into a social philosophy of altruism.” In this way, Emerson’s individualism is truly transcendental: “it found the universal within the individual, and in that discovery it forced the individual beyond individuality to universality.”
And here we encounter the paradox of self-reliance: “Man is forever fluctuating between his sense of individuality and his sense of common humanity,” wrote the Reb (the Rav discusses these themes as well). Blau concludes, “the essential human being is the private self” and therefore requires Emersonian individualism. Yet no man is an island, and the tension in Emerson’s thought is resolved in a way highly compatible with Jewish thought, “by the belief that that private self does not exist for itself, but for the contribution that it can make to the human race.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Saks is the editor of TRADITION. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.