The Importance of Individualism


I have been reading up on summaries and analyses of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” I put off the reading and discussion of the essay until we return to school on Tuesday. I knew that if I started yesterday, I’d be interrupted for the holiday weekend, so I put it off. It also allowed me to study up on Emerson more. I’m trying to make it as interesting and thought provoking as I can so that we can have a good discussion, which means I need to make it as simple as possible for this particular group of students, who can be a bit lazy at times. Though you, my dear readers, may not be as enamored with Emerson and Transcendentalism as I am, I hope you will stick with reading this post as I get around to explaining why I think that a reading of Emerson today, of all days, is especially important.

As I was reading commentaries on Emerson, I came across the article “The Foul Reign of ‘Self-Reliance’,” in which Benjamin Anastas exposes what he considers to be the havoc wreaked by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal essay on generations of Americans. Anastas asks us to consider: Did the great Ralph Waldo Emerson get it wrong? Have we? Have we turned self-reliance into self-centeredness? And while I tend to think he goes a bit overboard in laying virtually all American self-centeredness at Emerson’s feet, his ultimate point about his interpretation of self-reliance being an unassailable (and dangerous) moral and spiritual principle these days is one that is at least worth taking a closer look at. And we certainly wouldn’t advocate for a return to the dehumanizing, piety of the Puritanism to which Emerson was responding.

Early in the heart of the 19th Century, young America was in trouble. A brutal economic bust. Banks collapsing all over. Confidence was wavering. And here came the brilliant transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, like a blazing star. Trust yourselves, he said. Look inside. Speak what you think in hard words. Above all, embrace self-reliance. And boy did that go deep. It’s American bedrock. Maybe too deep, which is what Anasta says in his article. It’s become self-centeredness. Polarizing rigidity. In an interview with Tom Ashbrook. Of NPR’s “On Point,” Anasta states that he wrote “The Foul Reign of ‘Self-Reliance’” in an Emersonian style of purposeful antagonism. I personally think that he was a bit too antagonistic, and that “Self-Reliance” spoke to him in a totally different way then it did to me.

Anastas read “Self-Reliance” and sees a call for each person to be concerned with their own self and not be concerned with others. At least, he claims this is how Americans interpreted it and has in turn become the American pursuit of self-interest and self-centeredness.

However, I believe that Emerson’s true point is not to advocate selfish people, but to advocate non-conformity. Emerson wanted people to rely on their inner self. That inner self which is guided by a rational God. No two people are identical. We were created that way on purpose. If all we do is follow others, then there is no free will. We simply conform to the pack mentality. Does this mean that we should be selfish? No it doesn’t. Emerson believes that our true inner voice is not selfish. If we rely on our inner moral code then we work for the betterment of all mankind.

If we were to blindly follow and conform, then no LGBT person would ever come out of the closet. Today is National Coming Out Day. It is a day for us to celebrate who we truly are. National Coming Out Day is observed annually to celebrate coming out and to raise awareness of the LGBT community and civil rights movement. The holiday is observed in a wide variety of ways: from rallies and parades to information tables in public spaces. Participants often wear pride symbols such as pink triangles and rainbow flags. Whereas, I may not go around telling people, especially those who have no need to know, that I am gay, I have become more comfortable in my own skin. If people want to assume I am gay or assume that I am straight, then that is their prerogative. However, the one major thing that Emerson has taught me is to be who I am. Being who we are has been a bit of a theme this week for this blog, and I thank Emerson for that reminder.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

One response to “The Importance of Individualism

  • louisamayalcatt

    Great piece. Transcendental ism, and Emerson in particular helped redefine the social culture of the United States following its independence from Great Britain. We rely daily on his quote, ‘the sun shines today, also.’

    You will be pleased to know that concord-Carlisle high school in concord, mass celebrates coming out day and the students, staff, faculty and parents fully embrace it, as well as the community. LMA

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