Excerpts and thoughts on self-reliance and what they mean to me. Starting with Emerson and adding as I go. As I read and re-read different essays and passages from the past, I will edit them and makes notes on what affects me most. You can sense the great messages in writing from the past, yet some of it gets lost in the older language used. As I go through this and understand the deep messages, I’ll put them into easier to understand vocabulary.
Self-Reliance Means Strong Enough To Start Fresh
‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’—Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
Self-Reliance Is Doing What You Judge To Be The Right Thing
We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. People imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every momenet.
Every day will be different for you and your actions will vary. In the end though, a mean average will show. In all the little zigs and zags of your daily actions a lifetime character of who you really are will show. As long as your zigs and zags each be honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now.
Greatness appeals to the future. If I can be firm enough today to do right and scorn eyes, I must have done so much right before as to defend me now. Be it how it will, do right now. Always scorn appearances and you always may. The force of character is cumulative. All the foregone days of virtue work their health into this. What makes the majesty of the heroes of the senate and the field, which so fills the imagination? The consciousness of a train of great days and victories behind. They shed a united light on the advancing actor. You are attended as by a visible escort of angels. It gives the confidance you see in great people. Their stride, unwavering gaze, calm demeanor and oak like stability.
Self-Reliance Is Honor
Honor is venerable to us because it is no ephemera. It is always ancient virtue. We worship it today because it is not of today. We love it and pay it homage because it is not a trap for our love and homage, but is self-dependent, self-derived, and therefore of an old immaculate pedigree, even if shown in a young person.
I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency. Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward. Instead of the gong for dinner, let us hear a whistle from the Spartan fife. Let us never bow and apologize more.
I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind. I would make it true. Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom and trade and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works.
Ordinarily, every body in society reminds us of somewhat else, or of some other person. Character, reality, reminds you of nothing else; it takes place of the whole creation. The man must be so much that you must make all circumstances indifferent. Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish your design. Posterity seems to follow your steps as a train of clients. A man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to your genius that you is confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man. All history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.
Let a man then know your worth. Don’t peep or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of a beggar in the world which exists for you. Your worth is decided by yourself. Your clothes are decided upon by you and not the media or opinion of others.
As great a stake depends on your private act today, as followed their public and renowned steps. When private people shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of the people.
The world has been instructed by its kings, who have so magnetized the eyes of nations. It has been taught by this colossal symbol the mutual reverence that is due from man to man. The joyful loyalty with which people have everywhere suffered the king, the noble, or the great proprietor to walk among them by a law of your own.
Make your own scale of people and things and reverse theirs, pay for benefits not with money but with honor, and represent the law in your person. The hieroglyphic by which they obscurely signified their consciousness of their own right and comeliness is the right of every man.
The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear?
The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. For the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. We first share the life by which things exist and afterwards see them as appearances in nature and forget that we have shared their cause.
Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or its absence is all we can affirm.
Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of your mind and your involuntary perceptions, and knows that to your involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. You may err in the expression of them, but you know that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed.
My wilful actions and acquisitions are but roving;—the idlest reverie, the faintest native emotion, command my curiosity and respect. People often confuse their personal opinions with their ‘intuitive perceptions’. Intuitive perceptions come from the higher self and are aligned with Truth, but opinions do not.
The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps. It must be that when your conscious speaks, you should communicate. Not one thing, but all things; should fill the world with your voice; should scatter forth light, nature, time, souls, from the centre of the present thought; and new date and new create the whole. Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,—means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour. All things are made sacred by relation to it,—one as much as another.
Don’t believe it if a man claims to know and speak of God and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom you have cast your ripened being? Why worship the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul.
People are timid and apologetic. No longer upright daring not to say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.
A deer’s nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments. But man postpones or remembers; you does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround you, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. you cannot be happy and strong until you too live with nature in the present, above time.
This should be plain enough. Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear their own internal voice and speak it to the world. We shall not always set so great a price on a few texts, on a few lives like in the religious texts of the world or latest author. We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of fathers and teachers. If we live truly, we shall see truly. It is as easy for the strong man to be strong, as it is for the weak to be weak. When we have new perception, we shall gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish.
This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE. The world is impartial. Plant poison or crops and the earth will grow it. Power in nature is the essential measure of right. Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing and therefore self-relying soul.
Thus all concentrates: let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause. Let us stun and astonish the intruding rabble of people and books and institutions, by a simple declaration of the divine fact.
But now we are a mob. Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is your genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean, but it goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the urns of other people. We must go alone.
At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say,—’Come out unto us.’ But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power people possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act. “What we love that we have, but by desire we bereave ourselves of the love.”
If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and faith, let us at least resist our temptations; let us enter into the state of war and wake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy, in our Saxon breasts. This is to be done in our smooth times by speaking the truth. Check this lying hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse.
Break from customs and be yourself. Don’t break yourself to fit in a mould not made for you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me and the heart appoints.
Does this sound harsh today? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and if we follow the truth it will bring us out safe at last.’—But so may you give these friends pain. Yes, but I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility. Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they justify me and do the same thing.
The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild your crimes. But the law of consciousness abides.
And truly it demands something godlike in you who has cast off the common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust yourself for a taskmaster. High be your heart, faithful your will, clear your sight, that you may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to yourself, that a simple purpose may be to you as strong as iron necessity is to others!
If any man consider the present aspects of what is called by distinction society, you will see the need of these ethics. The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whisperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want people who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force and do lean and beg day and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlor soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.
If you fail in your first enterprise don’t lose all heart. Some people say if you fail at your first business you’re ruined. Not so. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to your friends and yourself that you’re right in being disheartened and in complaining the rest of your life.
This is a dead end.
Someone who tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always like a cat falls on their feet, is the real winner. You walk abreast with your days and feel no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for you do not postpone your life, but live already. You have not one chance, but a hundred chances.
With the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear. You should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment you act from yourself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries and customs out of the window, we pity you no more but thank and revere you.
Regrets are a waste of time. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will. Regret calamities if you can thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend your own work and already the evil begins to be repaired. Our sympathy is just as base. We come to them who weep foolishly and sit down and cry for company, instead of imparting to them truth and health in rough electric shocks, putting them once more in communication with their own reason. The secret of fortune is joy in our hands.
Welcome evermore to gods and people is the self-helping man. For you all doors are flung wide; you all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our love goes out to you and embraces you because you did not need it.
Learn from a master for a while until it starts to impede your own evolution.
Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none but your Maker can teach you. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare? Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakspeare.
Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal cyourel of Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses or Dante, but different from all these. Not possibly will the soul, all rich, all eloquent, with thousand-cloven tongue, deign to repeat itself; but if you can hear what these patriarchs say, surely you can reply to them in the same pitch of voice; for the ear and the tongue are two organs of one nature. Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.
All people plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.
We have the finest cars but have lost the ability to run fast. It may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy. By laws and establishment we lose some forms of vigor and wild virtue.
And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. People have looked away from themselves and at things so long that they have come to esteem the religious, learned and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.
It is only as a man puts off all foreign support and stands alone that I see you to be strong and to prevail.
In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.