Too Much Self-Reliance?

“Self-Reliance.” Did the great Ralph Waldo Emerson get it wrong? Have we? Have we turned self-reliance into self-centeredness?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, circa 1857. (George Eastman House Collection)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, circa 1857. (George Eastman House Collection)

Early in the heart of the 19th Century, young America was in trouble. A brutal economic bust. Banks collapsing all over. Confidence, 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, says my guest today. It’s become self-centeredness. Polarizing rigidity.

This hour, On Point: Emerson, and the most American debate – can you have too much self-reliance?

-Tom Ashbrook


Benjamin Anastas, novelist, journalist, and literary critic. His recent New York Times Magazine piece, “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’” can be found here.

Alex Zakaras, professor of political philosophy and the history of political thought at the University of Vermont. He’s the author of “Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Benjamin Anastas on “Self-Reliance” in the New York Times “For years I blamed Mr. Sideways — and the money fever of the 1980s — for this weird episode of hucksterism in English class. But that was being unfair. Our teacher had merely fallen under the spell, like countless others before and after, of the most pernicious piece of literature in the American canon.”

Literary critic Harold Bloom takes a look at “Self Reliance” also from the New York Times “In the spring of 1837, a great depression afflicted the northeastern United States. All the banks in New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore suspended cash payments, as did many in Boston. Of the 850 banks in the United States, nearly half closed or partly failed. If the crisis of 2008 was caused by poor lending, the Panic of 1837, too, featured speculation and inflation.”

Here’s a link to the original Emerson essay, Self-Reliance.

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