In a country whose middle name is independence, where do we really see the mark of an individual? We are surrounded by a conflicting culture that is trying to do its own thing while simultaneously trying to fit in. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance demonstrates this paradox. He spends a majority of the text arguing in favor of nonconformity and originality, but Emerson contradicts his own definition of individuality by writing this essay.
Emerson is telling us how to not conform. By telling us how to do anything, he is encouraging us to conform to his word. “Your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual,” (13). It must, must it? He writes that “it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster,” (14). But if Emerson were reading this, how would he react to being told he “must” do anything? He writes that “it is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail,” (21). Emerson would respect someone who is being an individual, but if someone was choosing to do that based on reading this essay, we would not be able to refer to them as an individual. They acted upon media they took in, and not from their own instinct or spontaneity.
Let us also consider that Emerson is relating our “selves” to the hand of God, and saying that when we act on our instinct, that is us listening to our internal voice of God. “The soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them,” (10). Here is an essay where he is arguing that we all have our individual interests and motives, he states that we are actually all part of one whole. He is telling us to make ourselves separate from the wholeness of society, but we should accept the fact that we are part of one bigger whole, that is bigger than society. “All men have my blood, and I have all men’s,” he states, so doesn’t that mean that we all inherently share a part of ourselves (!3)? How can he then say that “[e]very man is unique,” (18)?
Emerson explicitly argues that in order to achieve transcendental individuality, one can not imitate because “…imitation is suicide;…’(2). However, he also explicitly advocates for the greatness of those before him. “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 understood.”(7) If the intention that Emerson embedded in this essay was to inform readers on how to be individual, he has failed. Not only has he failed to give a clear-minded guide to originality, but he has also contradicted himself. Later on, on page 8, he goes back on his praise of Jesus. “Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man;…”(8).
Emerson argues that “truth is handsomer than the affection of love” (4). However, his use of the word “handsome” creates some holes in his statement. Sure, love and affection may not have nice appearances, but one can still be kind and affectionate as an individual. He says “…do not expect me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor… I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.” His implication that charity is conformity is somewhat undermined by the use of such a subjective word. In this instance, he uses an implicit piece of evidence and still manages to contradict himself in some way.
In Emerson’s ideal society, every member would be an individual that only acted upon their internal instinct. This type of culture, however, would not allow for the sharing of ideas, the forming of social bonds, or the formation of a community that shares ideas and interest. Without the ability to collaborate, our current society would not be able to exist. Self – Reliance is a text that questions the relationship between the members of a society. America values the profit that is a result of this collaboration. Therefore, how American is Emerson? By contradicting his definitions of originality and individualism, he is relinquishing his Americanness.