In his essay “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson stated the following regarding the relationship between society and its individual members:
“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.”
As for his belief concerning how the individual should behave, he wrote: “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. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense … . The highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what THEY thought.”
The last line describes the main point of the essay: We should think and act strictly in accordance with what we firmly believe to be right and true. Intellectual self-reliance will enable each of us to develop and contribute our own small piece of “truth” to the ever-blossoming “whole,” rather than simply reinforcing the common mediocrity by stunting our thoughts and behavior for no higher purpose than gaining acceptance or acclaim.
Many Americans, having read only the essay’s title, believe Emerson was calling for self-reliance in no higher realm than that of the material or financial.
It seems to me that modern American culture is the fruition of this misconception.
Wayne L. Parker