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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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  • Sara in VT

    We’re not self reliant.  We expect to get a lot by giving very little.  I also think self reliance means a degree of responsibility, which we are also lacking from our most to least powerful people.

    • Andrea in Cambridge

      Thoreau described the reality that emerson talked about.Some of the wood for his cabin had previously been the HOUSE of an Irish family. No sense of humanity there.  Maybe the high water mark of anti-Irish

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Few, if any of the self-centered, selfish, have read R.W. Emerson, and are certainly NOT self-sufficient, as he tried to be!
        The GREEDY rich, depend on MANY under-paid people, for their wealth, and don’t care who they hurt!

  • JustSayin

    The Amish are self reliant to a certain degree. Everyone else is in a state of technological induced delirium. Turn the electricity off for two weeks, and then ask again who is self reliant.


      Ever hear the theory that if the grid goes down for 30 days, civilization will collapse?  Scary stuff.

      • JustSayin

        Yes. The joke of this piece (pre-program guess) is that financial isolation leads to a form of actual social independence. Only a severely deluded mindset based on ideology could consider that as reality.  But the point of ideology is denial of huge glaring realities, and thus owning things that other people designed, manufactured, and maintain; while being totally clueless as to actual function is considered as an act of individuality and “self-reliance” 

        Most of my neighbors do not understand even the simplest of technologies that they rely on every day.  Any sense of self-reliance in the industrialized world is delusional. Even the Amish and the Kalahari Bushmen survive as social groups, and not individuals.

        Every human on the planet is dependent upon a immense technological web of interrelated technologies that they are unwilling to psychologically acknowledge.

        However, the chipmunks that live in my backyard are not reliant on any technology greater than a hole, some gathered fluff, and middens to survive… proof that self-reliance is not an aspect of intellect or technology, but simply an emotion based on human greed and an exaggerated sense of self importance.



    Denying our interdependence is sheer folly.  Since intensive agriculture began in the fertile crescent thousands of years ago, we have been tied together in a CIVILIZATION.

    If you try to horde too much and keep to yourself, the destitute will break into your stronghold and steal your barley bread and goats!  We must move forward together, or the imbalance will tip us all over.

    If your intent is to be a truly “rugged individual”, grow your own food, build your own roads, police your own lands, educate your own children, treat your own illnesses and injuries, and be ready to repel foreign invaders.

    Rugged Individualism isn’t advancing yourself at the expense of others.  Hording wealth and gaming the system by controlling it with gold is the opposite of individualism.

    That’s okay though, keep believing you are the master of your domain until the impoverished hordes are at your gate, demanding your goats and barley bread.  I’ll be happy to hold a torch and pitchfork.

  • AC

    well…..if i go by how people drive, the picture’s not very rosy. But how many people really study Ralph Waldo Emerson (or with attention?). Not sure I’d lay the blame solely at his feet….

  • Jasoturner

    Self-reliance – generosity = self-centeredness


  • Elizabeth Margaret

    American Philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916) understood the potential and disastrous consequences of following the Emersonian path. 

    In 1882 he wrote an essay  in which he critiqued Emerson on 3 counts: it was MORALLY WEAK, unsystematic and TOO INDIVIDUALISTIC (Title: “The Decay of Earnestness” found in Fugitive Essays); Royce was spot on (okay, maybe not his metaphysics!).

    At Harvard Royce was overshadowed by William James, and few know of Royce today.  But his moderate communitarian stance and ethical rigor were lacking in James.  The self-centered culture of today can also be traced to a poor reading of James – and if we could re-engage the pragmaticism of Royce and Pierce we would find a new richness in the American philosophical tradition that eschewed such narrow visions of community and the self.

    • dirk

      if by ethical rigor you mean being faithful to protestant values, plus for Royce what would guarantee the right progress of the community was the presence of the Holy Ghost is this really better than individuals making the most of their individual gifts/callings in the midst of a liberal democracy?

      • Elizabeth Margaret

        Any writer at Harvard at the turn of the century will have the wasp-ish odor about them, but where in Royce do you find guarantees that right progress is the task of the holy ghost?  The community of interpretation has a spirit of sorts – larger than any individual – but thoroughly human in word and deed. As for individual gifts/calling, I have no idea what you have read, but this is not true to Royce.  

        Please understand I am not trying to cherry-pick from Royce; of course I would love to think he wasn’t racist but was a feminist.  I do prefer to read our philosophical history with a hermeneutic of generosity.

        More importantly – and pragmatically speaking – isn’t it is more important to consider all consequential developments in our pursuit of leading ideas?   We philosophize for the sake of action now – not to simply lift a template of the past. 

        Revision is required of us all – and Royce  would encourage the rigorous critique of his work – which is, to my mind, more fruitful than a wholesale rejection of what he (or Emerson or James and etc.) might have to offer:
        “We who revise may sometimes be able to see [a] better meaning that was latent in forms such as are now antiquated, and perhaps, in their old literal interpretation, even mischievous”  (PL p. 7)

        • dirk

          individual gifts/callings was the democratic pragmatist alternative to the Transcendental that I was offering, not sure how you decided that Royce was a naturalist/humanist in the modern sense as opposed to a christian apologist for the Spirit (for him the “interpretive” Spirit), you seem to have him confused with the later Dewey who wrote A Common Faith.

          • Elizabeth Margaret

            Thank you for this reading from 1985-if that date is correct it explains a lot; Corrington’s only reference for Royce is PC and that helps me understand your view of him as an apologist.  Few of Royce’s works were in print but PC in ’85.  There has been a lot of scholarly work done since then.

            I have not read the article but I think it is a fundamental error to see Royce’s project as merely Christian theology in philosophical guise.  There are many more contemporary writers/educators who are reconsidering Royce as a far more significant thinker for our time. 

            In 2007 the Lowell lectures were devoted to the relationship between Royce and James.  This was a big deal for Harvard, given that they rarely acknowledge Royce (except for Hillary Putnam and Cornel West) and in 2008 Royce’s work was the focus of an international conference (Opole, Poland); Europeans are getting much more interested in American philosophy (incl. Dewey, of course).

            Bottom line: I’m not confusing Royce with Dewey, but I appreciate your interest in the conversation!

          • dirk

            not sure where you are getting your misinfo on the availability of Royce’s texts but Corrrington is one of the leading experts on (and advocates for) Royce and read his oeuvre. Cornel West is a leading Christian apologist and has recently returned to seminary life. People of course are now naturalizing many of the thinkers of Spirit, including Hegel, but GH Mead and others where doing this some time ago and in terms that are not just echos of earlier thinkers but actually new and more useful projects. keep reading!

          • Elizabeth Margaret

            As a biblical interpreter Corrington’s agenda is not explicitly philosophical – and he is not the leading interpreter for Royce scholars.  Royce was not particularly interested in writing for theology.  As for West, his interest in Royce is not for his religious insights, but Royce’s darker vision – via Schopenhauer – that the world is not a dialectical or necessary progress toward perfection.  (All of Royce’s texts were available in libraries – but not in print until the 90′s, reissued by Vanderbilt and CUA Press – which is interesting in itself!  Many Royce scholars today are Catholic)

            I see Royce as a philosophical resource and don’t pretend to speak for those who read biblical hermeneutics. 

            But please, don’t assume I am simply uninformed and/or wrong – that simply closes of the possibilities of fruitful conversation. We see Royce very differently, and perhaps there is little to learn from one another in this forum. 

            I appreciate your obvious interest and engaged participation in this topic – it really is On Point.

          • dirk

            first you are mischaracterizing  Corrrington’s work which as you say you have not read, second West’s interests in our fallen/tragic condition are explicitly theological. You may want to use these sources for secular purposes, which I applaud, but please represent them in their full context.

    • Ellen Dibble

      I trace the “narrow visions of community and self” to Carl Rove, and his questionnaires in the early term of George W to determine what special interests could be discovered with which to push voters around.  If there were enough single issue voters on, say, abortion, then that was a mathematical possibility to capitalize on at the ballot box.  Algorithms evolved in campaigns just as algorithms were evolving on Wall Street — not because they would serve the citizenry but because they would create a win for This or for That, winner take all (or lose).  So selfishness was and is being “played” by Madison Avenue, by K Street, by political parties, by corporate interests.  
          It is MUCH harder to organize, to herd, to push a non-interest, a non-selfish vantage point.  No algorithm could pool them as efficiently.   That is my take.
          I don’t think it has to do with the history of American philosophical thought.  I think it has to do with human nature and mathematics.

      • Elizabeth Margaret

        Politically you may well be right, but the deeper question is what conditions led to the possibility of a Carl Rove being so successful?!  Mono-logical thinking is a powerful force and scary indeed.  Thanks for the post! 

        • Ellen Dibble

          Thanks for your inputs.  I read the thinkers you are citing almost half a century ago, and thanks to you, I am rethinking their relevance.  I actually think the “monological thinking” (maybe there’s a better word for it) began in the Clinton White House.  I remember reading an article in the New Yorker about certain political operatives insinuating their “pragmatic” perspectives into political maneuvering.  I don’t want to name names right here, but I still see those people throwing their weight and analyzing the scene.  At the time, it seemed these mindsets were being enlisted to counter the Republican drive to unseat Clinton for his perjury in re certain philandering.  If they are going to get ugly like that, we are going to get ugly like that; and to some extent, the tit for tat is continuing.  I’d say this mindset might have been launched then.  But you’re right, if Americans hadn’t bought into this style of politics, we wouldn’t have it.  We tolerate it, sadly. 

          • Elizabeth Margaret

            Ha! :)  Monolithic perhaps?  Or, perhaps “single-issue-voting” is what I am trying to point toward as a force that is hard to combat.  As a liberal/progressive type (whatever label works) I find that trying to view issues from multiple angles tends to lead to great insight and better judgment, but is far too slow for finding deep consensus that leads to vigorous action.  There is always the nagging thought about what/who might be affected or is missing in this picture. 

            Since you are math-adept, what do you make of the graphs of wealth distribution and how it changed in 30 years?  Perhaps this phenomenon of narrow-mindedness pre-dates Clinton?

            As for your prior reading of the Classic period of American Philosophy, it is well-worth revisiting, imho.

            best,  E.M.

  • hereandnow

    The past speaks to us in the present… our thoughts are tied to all thoughts by a “collective consciousness” and we are tied to all by a universal phenomenon of  living unity… we are all part of the whole that is NOW.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1816544 Dan Trindade

    I wonder if the self-centeredness prevalent in America can be attributed to our lack of cultural awareness as a people. Think about it, what is American culture about? Primarily personnel freedoms, entrepreneurship and consumerism. Though these are wonderful ideals to seek out individually, as a people they do not always work out. The massive inequality in wealth and education standards are clear indicators of this. In a nutshell, our drive for self-reliance has left us all out for ourselves with the concepts of civil society, charity, and societal well being left to more self sacrificing people. An “I don’t need to give to charity or help my neighbors, someone else will do it” mindset. The question then becomes how can we as a people direct ourselves towards a better more engaged, involved and dare I say caring society? Thinking about it I keep coming back to the concept of social engineering. Though it is often brought up as a boogie man of sorts by the right, when it comes to problems of such a magnitude as this it really seems to be the only option. An education system geared towards instilling in our students a sense of community and civic duty would be a good start though more would need to be done. Unless we do something, and something big at that, our focus on ourselves over our communities and our country will only lead to our decline and dissolution.

  • dirk

    Was Emerson really denying our daily, even historical, reliance on other people or was he rather challenging conservative ideas that valued traditional norms over the lived experience and capacities of the individual as he did in his Divinity School Address?

    • Elizabeth Margaret

      I like this point Dirk – and the notion of the individual as inherently relational, both logically and philosophically, is important as a corrective.

  • Amy

    Self-centeredness should not be a direct outcome of years of embracing self-reliance. Self-reliance is the ability to take care of oneself, the ability to handle one’s own life without (or with infrequent) help from others. It does not prevent a person from offering his or her abilities to others who need help, or from acknowledging the benefits of community. Self-centeredness, on the other hand, involves an inability or refusal to understand needs beyond one’s own. True, you must focus on yourself to an extent to be self-reliant, but to become self-centered after cultural instruction to be self-reliant is a perversion of the latter term.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Emerson may have given thought to a cabin in the woods with no dependence on anyone else (that’s not Thoreau, by the way), but he was much more concerned with establishing an American identity, independent from the cultural influence of Europe.  His idea of self-reliance is more about a person’s mind than about the physical necessities of life.

  • Al

    I can’t comment on what anybody will say on the show, of course, since it hasn’t been on yet.  Concerning the subject itself, though, I think self-reliance–as much of it as each of us can have, which will vary–is vital.  The more we try to do for ourselves, the more control we have over our lives, and, indeed, the more help we can give each other when it’s needed.  The second ground rule of a seminar I was in said, “Take care of yourself, so you can take care of others.”  I find this useful, though of course I don’t presume toforce my notion of care-taking on others.

    The prelevant problem is the frequent use of the self-reliance mantra as an excuse to refuse help to people who need it, which we all do many times.  I am very much an individualist, but the kind of individualism I treasure is the kind that both encourages people to “self-actualize” as much as possible and also provides the tools, instruction, and opportunities to allow, as nearly as possible, for all of us to do it. 

    • Terry Tree Tree


  • Shannonstoney

    In Emerson’s day, our country was primarily agrarian. Self-reliance meant growing your own food, not working on Wall Street and screwing your fellow citizens over.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    The problem is people parade their self-reliance, how they did it all by themselves – but they didn’t. They turn a blind eye and ignore their interdependence and dependence on others.

    • Ellen Dibble

      The parade of Paradise.  Eden.  The sin of pride, of arrogance.  Then we were all cast out into self-reliance.  Something like that.  

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Self-Indulgence is FAR from Self-Reliance, unless you indulge yourself in Self-Reliance!

    • JustSayin

      LOL That kind of self reliance is best done in private, and illegal in public.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    In my state, I can have fifteen semiautomatic rifles in my basement.  Your point?

    • AC

      why do you need so many?

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        What does need have to do with it?  In the free states of the United States, we can own as many as we want.

        • AC

          huh. it seems silly though, unless you live near grizzlies or those ‘super-pigs’, but then wouldn’t you just need more amo instead?

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            You don’t collect anything, I take it.

          • AC

            i don’t understand?

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            I take it that you don’t enjoy collecting anything.

          • AC

            i like collecting rocks….that makes me sound really boring, doesn’t it?

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

            Not at all.

          • Terry Tree Tree

            Rocks can be weapons too!  Can also be paper-weights!  Or ‘pets’, if you’re old enough to remember!

  • Sara

    There is attachment theory research being done that shows we are “wired” to be in relationship with others – that this is our baseline vs. the traditional baseline of being alone.  While it’s a nice idea to be self-dependent and not rely on anyone, I believe we need to be in relationship with each other – more of a communal/community way of living.  I don’t think this needs to go to the extreme but I believe we need to turn to that idea more than this individualistic, self-centered view many US citizens have.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Ah, no rabbit warrens for me.  I like having some distance from my neighbors.

    • Ellen Dibble

      I used to think American fragmentation was a danger; children felt no obligation to stay in the neighborhood as their parents, for jobs the family knew, and to care for the parents; they headed for the best jobs, with the blessing of the parents.  And this was when it still cost a lot to place long-distance calls, and before the interstate highways had all been laid down.  People went to college and detached.  New communities were not as strong as the old ones.  
          HOWEVER, that neurological reality of interconnectedness being part of wholeness is coming to fruition in cell phones, in Twitter, in Facebook, in Skype, in phone contracts that no longer bill you per phone call, per distance covered.  And people seem to stay connected far, far more than in the past.
          So much for self-reliance.  “I check my mobile phone every ten minutes.”   “I have 1,374 ‘friends,’” and I keep close track of them, too.”

  • AC

    you can’t live off the grid completely; unless you’re willing to get cholera…..

    • Brian Dunbar

      It is not difficult to avoid cholera ‘off the grid’: don’t defecate in your drinking water.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NUQ4XMTZ32OAXZSJHIWPBOOJ2I GH

        But when everyone lives ‘off the grid’ it becomes much  harder to control where your neighbors defecate.  

        • Terry Tree Tree

          Don’t forget the bears in the woods!

  • Shannonstoney

    Emerson was a Romantic in the 19th century tradition. A lot of his individualism was not unique to him at all. See Rousseau.

  • Flowen

    American self-reliance and independence is a quaint illusion! It has never been more opposite:

    Americans have never been more dependent on government and corporations than now. Without jobs, consumer goods, and entitlements, American consumers do not and can not make out very well.

    The illusion of independence drives into the big boxes to express our individualism in the shopping malls.

    Discover the modern self at the Adam Curtis video “Century of the Self”

  • Ellen Dibble

    I was reading up yesterday for various reasons about the autonomic nervous system, which it seems to me science hasn’t plumbed yet, partly because mice are not that similar in this regard.  But autonomic disorders are close to disorders (or enhancements) of both the conscious and the unconscious.  I have to let this information steep, and hopefully political philosophers will as well.  But the modern environment can, in my experience, hugely impact the sense of self, the autonomic self.  Emerson, when he lived, would have no idea of the damage or the impact of industrialization.   The plastic medulla oblongata; who’d have thunk it.  See this link for starters.  

  • James

    In the vein of Emerson, a country the “goes shopping” to the tune of $460 billion for Christmas– in the face of economic hard times– is anything but individualistic, non-conformist or self-reliant, but instead reveals a country so bound up in conformity that it is self-destructive. From the tea-party to the now woeful complaints of the world’s wealthiest middle class.. we demonstrate a willingness to follow blindly, rather than think, truly, for ourselves, as OUR time requires, in a way relevant to NOW. I think this author reveals just the type of social blindness to his own society that Emerson was rallying against. Different times present different challenges…and it seems the author has failed to see the challenges of Now.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Emerson is acting in the Protestant tradition.  Protestants said that we don’t need to refer to a priest or other authority to determine where we stand with God.  Emerson is merely extending that idea to our thinking in general.

  • Owen

    Who is the author suggesting we are supposed to rely on?  

  • AC

    some one please bring up the ‘people of walmart’. I feel petty, but i’m always torn between shock, laughter & jealousy that they are so….uncaring…..


  • JustSayin

    Ron Paul is so self reliant, he was not born… Libertarian lore states he simply budded off his even more rigidly self reliant father.

  • Luke

    Wasn’t America founded on “Christian” principles.  Those whose tenants are of love grace and forgiveness, to love thy neighbor..  Yet we have morphed into this ego-centric glutton whose main concerns are self-interest at the victimization of their neighbor.  We are so far off from where we came from, for instance the GOP representatives calling the raising of taxes on the one percent class warfare.  They have been the wagers of this war for decades, These who profess these “Christian” principles. 

    • AC

      that principle was not applied to everyone, i don’t think it was a particularly brilliant model either….

  • Barry

    As a Romantic Emerson believed in an essence and an essential goodness, an essentialism that anybody with the capacity to think critically would immediately call into question.  I agree with Anastas that the current mantra that the only thing that counts is what I believe because I believe it, backed by an innate and unquestioned belief in an essential truth lying within us, is at the very heart of our very dire current condition. 

  • Anonymous

    It’s so important to understand Emerson’s essay as, first of all, a statement of Idealism, not as a primer for civic engagement. Second of all, it is helpful to see “Self-Reliance” in historical context. Emerson wrote it after being harshly denounced by his elders for his Address to the graduating seminarians at Harvard, where he exhorted them to break free from “corpse-cold religion” and was attacked by the Establishment for his enthusiastic idealism. Anastas’ juvenile treatment of the essay, and his puerile personal insults of Mr. Emerson, seem to locate him at the same approximate place of maturity that Emerson was when he penned the essay. Most Emerson scholars regard “Self-Reliance” as the favorite of teenaged boys for a reason. 

  • Webb Nichols

    No one is completely self-reliant. No one can ever claim to have done it on theirown. It is a false belief and objective. It is transparent hubris.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      So you say.  What about this idea that Emerson meant our mental self reliance, not physical?

      • Jeff K

        Webb Nichols is correct. We are an inescapably social species. We are interdependent. We are born profoundly vulnerable–more so than any other mammal. Our basic needs and needs for nurture are profound. Unmet, we don’t achieve self-reliance, physically or mentally. And the process can be disrupted so easily by so many factors.

        Evan what “self-reliance” we achieve is extremely qualified and provisional.

  • Roy-in-Boise

    Self Reliance is the idea and philosophy that the fringe right uses to wiggle out of the need for and the obligation to pay taxes. Particularly those meant for the social safety net.
    FDR’s New Deal is the antithesis for these folks fundamental outlook on life.
    In the end we are all inter-dependent in the function of our economy and accumulation of academic knowledge. None of us are islands.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Excellent point.  Also, that certain people are using their profits that do not go out the door in taxes for the politically extremely seductive purpose of creating American jobs.  Count them.  Count those jobs; count those taxable citizens.  However, you’d think a few good ads on CBS, NBC, and ABC would ace that issue.  Why not?  Take my food delivery person, who I actually feel very warmly toward.  I didn’t realize it was the same little boy who had body-slammed his kid brother, and lay on a pillow while scarfing down a set of children’s poems I had written for the group.  Now he has a beard.  I know the culture he’s from.  That he has not gotten in more trouble is good news, but I read news that is grayish.  He smiles, not certain if I recognize him.  His name is, however, not that common.  “Hi.”  “I’ve been in corrections.  I was injured, I’ll be getting disability (this is “success” in his culture); I’ll be following my friends to Dade County.  I have to stay here one more year. I like golf.”  I told him maybe I’d be following him.  Reading the body language I was proud of him the way you’d be proud of somebody who had been a corrections OFFICER.  And the injury could have been — well.  Not exactly an achievement.  In his system of values, he’s gamed the system, succeeded, and with his integrity and social integratedness intact.  Big smile.   I’m glad he feels that way, but I’m sorry these were his choices.  Given who his family and neighborhood were/are, that is his reality.  Because of this, the ads will not ace the issue, however.  We are being fleeced, and by people who are not All Bad.

  • Darkwritergirl

    Emerson saved my life.  I was a suicidal teenager and young person in my twenties, and the product of an abusive household.  But as dangerous as my father was, what did me more damage was both my parents’ extreme narcissism, seing their children as an extension of themselves with whom they could do as they pleased.  “Self-Reliance” was the beginning of an awakening for me that I belonged to me and I had a duty to myself to reclaim myself.  I think the thing the writer is responding to negatively is the necessary belief in Emerson of the essential basic goodness of people in the bedrock of their soul; but personally, I needed that to rescue me from the dark.

    • Elizabeth Margaret

      You raise a very important point:  We must not dismiss the power of any idea, especially those that arise at the right moment in our lives.  The truth that is contained within your insight is part of what keeps Emerson a living text.

      (Being raised by a narcissistic mother, I am grateful for Emerson and to you for this post.)

    • Kathleen in Pittsburgh

      Thanks for this!  A very powerful story and I appreciate your sharing it.  

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Thanks to Emerson for saving one that can think so well!

    • Jeff K

      I am glad you made that connection.

  • Dcolannino

    To be selfish is a necessary aspect of reality in that we can only relate to our universe through the self. This is part of Emerson’s project, & it is not chance that Nietzsche finds himself reading Emerson in the later half of the 19th century.

    • Jeff K

      “Selfish” is not the same thing as self-awareness, self-regard, or “enlightened self-interest.” Selfishness is self-regard that has become toxic.

      • Jeff K

        Much of what Nietzsche wrote was tongue-in-cheek; deliberately extreme and provocative statements to make a point or to provoke thought. (Much as his object of study, Plato, had done.) It is not wise to read Nietzsche (or Plato) in a literalist manner.

  • Garry Sherman

    Self reliance is probably a good thing, far too many people are sheep… Self absorbency is the bane of this nation. Far too many people are far too impressed by themselves. Apparently, they are “awesome” for just showing up.

  • lynda-mary

    I find this philosophy has extracted compassion from American society; a society that, for example, does not seem scandalized by the great number of its vets being homeless and jobless. Furthermore, some people are born with a greater capacity than others to be ‘self-reliant’. Others have incidents in their childhood that damage them for life and they need help to navigate ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’.

    • Ellen Dibble

      We have considered it Communist heresy to say from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, but there are always some trying to raise their voices to say what I need is not the same as what the next individual needs.  These are the good Samaritans, the Bill Gateses, the burdensome uncle who has given the coat off his back to his neighbors and is now freezing.
      The tax code can’t ferret out need versus impetus-for-gain-and-growth in all cases, certainly not while maintaining the spur against the side of Americans to keep galloping, Or Else.  
      Ambition is a great motivator.  But hunger is an even greater one.  (Wait, malnutrition — aka hunger — is now almost government policy, what with corn syrup subsidized all over the place.  I’ll have to say disease, not hunger, is a motivator — and I’ll still get in trouble because of our 20 percent GDP going to health care.)

      • Jeff K

        Hunger, after a certain point, ceases to motivate. From that point, it immobilizes.

    • Jeff K


  • Heidi Eben

    I am spending every spare moment and dime to develop my little homestead in Vermont. I am under no illusion the I will ever be self reliant. I am as dependant on a functioning democratic society as the next guy. Self reliance begins with a sustainable culture that holds equality as a holy principal. Self reliance is caring for your “neighbors”

    • Jeff K

      Yes. Self reliance is maturing to such strength–outer and inner–so that I don’t need to be cared for but rather am able to care for others; to do my part for the community. When I have done that reliably and responsibly through my adulthood, then I can welcome, with a clear conscience, the care I will need again if I’m fortunate enough to live so long.

      We are inescapably social creatures–so evolved and so wired that we naturally want to do this and derive deep satisfaction when doing so, if we are blessed with the maturity that brings out these natural inclinations.

      Sadly, too many of us have that natural maturity disrupted, corrupted and undermined–by trauma, deprivation and, yes, by ideology.

  • Troll Doll

    I think I have a new hero now.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Someone would say that the socialized attitudes and mental states that we develop in childhood ARE selfhood.  If Emerson thought the self was what could transcend that, well.  Where were his grandparents?  Where was his psychoanalyst to help him integrate his adolescent rebellious discovery of his “independence” and separateness, to help him integrate that separateness with the groundedness in family that can hardly be underestimated?   Where was Freud when Emerson needed him?  When Americans needed him?

  • http://lizybee.wordpress.com/ EF Sweetman

    I can’t help but thing we’ve morphed self-reliance into self-indulgence. It’s a pity–I think of self-reliance as the pioneers, cowboys, homesteaders and other brave individuals (and groups) that forged ahead into the unknown for the better of others. Now I perish the thought that the moniker is equal to the boring, naval gazing, self-absorbed PC thuggish masses.

    • AC

      but how can you compare? the population was not in competition for food or space back then, nor were they showering in their neighbor’s waste….it’s an apple and this time is the orange….

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NUQ4XMTZ32OAXZSJHIWPBOOJ2I GH

        On the contrary, it was the competition for food and space that pushed the European masses to the New World and then to expand ever westward.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Barry-Alfonso/1742132278 Barry Alfonso

    Great discussion! Keep in mind that Emerson said that”consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” Emerson’s essays were full of contradictions and didn’t make careful arguments as much as string together individual statements strung together as a theme. His idea of self-reliance is both a blessing and a curse — a hobgoblin and an inspiring angel all at once.

    • Jeff K

      Good points. Moreover, Emerson’s thinking evolved as he matured. You can’t take the whole of his work as some monolithic scripture. (For that matter, you can’t take scripture as some monolithic scripture!)

  • TweedleDumDee

    To follow up the Paul/Individual call vs. our subservience to large interests,  those interests use our selfish materialism and consumerism to essentially enslave us and degrade our individual humanity.

    We need to reform both ourselves, less materialistic, more self-sufficient, and our Government/Banking power structure.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    Some people use self-reliance as method of empowering themselves so they can help themselves and others.

    Others use self-reliance as an excuse to be greedy, selfish pigs.

    • TweedleDumDee

      At least you are free to do so and encourage others too.

      • TweedleDumDee

        We empower the establishment to outlaw jerks and legislate/define generosity at our own long term peril.

  • Ellen Dibble

    It seems if we have obedience versus (what did the caller say) innovation, we have been on a obedience kick since World War II, since the Cold War, that being channeled through churches, who are glad to continue with conformity and obedience.  It keeps their wholeness, their flock intact.  This is so different from God depending on that national church-goingness.  People are born with a sense of fairness.  Ask any two-year-old with a sibling.  God can’t be killed off by a political movement that says we are not responsible for one another.  For one thing politics by definition is about how we as citizens can work TOGETHER.

  • Dan Cooper

    When I originally read the guest’s piece in the Times there was a temptation to leave comments on how silly and amateurish it was, but when I logged on to the Times’ site some 70 or so people had already done so and, so far as I remember, no one liked it.  I can’t understand why it’s getting more attention.

  • http://twitter.com/Dave_Eger Dave Eger

    Emerson’s self-reliance is not greedy self interest. He discusses taking care of yourself as to not be a burden to society, rather than taking what you can from society to benefit yourself alone. Someone did once mention “enlightened self interest” to me, where you realize that it benefits you through your social activities when others in your society are also doing well, so you focus on getting by with, rather than instead of others. Perhaps what we really need is another age of enlightenment.

    • Bruce

      Yes, I heartily agree with “what we really need is another age of enlightenment” or the very least a re-examination of our obsession with acquisition and our rabid consumerism (as distinct from consumption to meet genuine needs).

      Our consumerist society is fueled by unregulated markets and unrestrained globalization.  It really gained steam in the early 1980′s, when it was promoted as the legitimate end of unfettered capitalism.

      In addition to re-regulation and international trade reform as well as tax reform, perhaps what is needed is a cultural shift to more communitarian values (i.e. mutuality) and more transcendental values (i.e. religious, contemplative and artistic ones).

      You might want to check out Amitai Etzioni who has written about the need for such a transformation.

      His recommendations , if I understand them correctly, would not eradicate capitalism, but rather seek to reduce some of its rapacious aspects allowing it to thrive within clear limits and striking a new balance between consumption and other human pursuits. 

      Environmental economist, Herman Daly, has also discussed the need for such transformational thinking from the standpoint of nonrenewable resource depletion, pollution and time scarcity. 

  • dirk
  • Roger Wilson

    Bens piece is a shallow cheap shot, nothing more.  One wonders how the thing got published; I suspect he is close friends with some editor who has some space to fill

    • Jeff K

      Did you read the article? Did you actually listen to this discussion? I think you completely missed the tongue-in-cheek humor regarding Emerson himself and the serious concern regarding the legacy of mis-reading Emerson.

      • Dan Cooper

        I actually really agree with Roger, when I read the original piece in the Times it wasn’t so much agreeing or disagreeing that caught me, it was amazement it ever got printed.  It’s just a very high-school sort of tantrum and the quality of writing OR thought is absent.  I also kept imagining scenarios that would put this thing in print.  A friend, yes.  Or maybe embarrassing pictures of a Times editor…

  • cea

    A history class that I had taken had pointed to the Guilded Age of the late 1800s that were expressed in an essay by Andrew Carnegie, “Gospel of Wealth” as the source of the present thought of ‘rugged individualism’ and the reliance on self for well being.  The general idea was that the richest people were responsible for the overall welfare of those under them by providing funds marked for specific purposes, like libraries, and not expend large sums of money to individuals or charity organizations that don’t have the ability to spend money wisely on themselves.  Carnegie is the very example of the ‘self-made’ individual, but even here, there is a balance between self-reliance and charity, and there is a danger to over simplify. 
    There is another statement that is very prevalent in our culture, “God helps those who help themselves.”  This is attributed to Greek culture, but Ben Franklin popularized it, and the exact wording came from a British poet, Algernon Sidney in the 1600s. 
    I don’t know how much that Emerson’s works were referenced, in either point, above.  I have been planning to read Emerson, this year, starting with Nature. This program provides me with added incentive and do my own critical thinking.   I suggest the author look at Carnegie and Sidney as possible sources of our self-’ish’ reliance more than Emerson. 

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Didn’t Andrew Carnegie hire gun-slingers to shoot into the family tents of his workers that were striking for real pay, instead of company script only good at company store with inflated prices?
         Carnegie build libraries and museums with the wealth that he got from exploiting others, that would have built libraries and museums from decent pay.   With decent pay, they would have been able to send their children to school, and get schooling themselves.

      • Jeff K

        Regarding your first sentance, I think you’re thinking of J. D. Rockefeller.

        • cea

          He’s close.  There was a strike at his steel mill in Homestead where Carnegie hired Pinkerton to secure his mill and resulted in one of the bloodiest labor-owner conflicts in U.S. history.  Carnegie is a complex figure. I agree with much of TTT’s statements.  At least he thought about charity and urged his contemporaries to give some back, but he was a self-made millionaire and felt that anyone could do the same to the extent he didn’t feel the need to provide better pay or work conditions to help them live day-to-day.

  • Bruce

    Great show!

    The Ayn Rand, Ron Paul, Tea Party conservatives have conflated “self-reliance” with “possessive individualism” which leads to the notion that any form of economic redistribution is immoral.

    The laissez-faire, free-market ideologues have resorted to this justification for tax relief, regulatory relief and free trade because of the failure of the neo-classical economic model based on rational self-interest and marginal utility–a failure that most of us have become painfully aware of since the advent of the Great Recession of 2008.

    The concept of  “Possessive Individualism” rests on the erroneous assumption that the individual is in sole possession of everything he needs to succeed; in other words, the individual is in total control of his economic destiny AND owes nothing to society for his capacity to determine that destiny.

    This concept serves as a basis for the myopic view that most forms of social investment, govt. regulation and wealth transfer amount to exploitation of the rich–”confiscating,” “looting,” and “mooching” — terms that the hysterical Reactionary Right are now once again fond of using to undermine legitimate debate and rational discourse.

    In addition to reading more Emerson, I would also suggest reading C. B. MacPherson for a better understanding of how Emerson and other classical liberal thinkers have been distorted by the conservative movement to reward the “virtue of selfishness” — the self with a small “s” as opposed to the authentic Self. 

    • Jeff K

      Well thought. Well said.

  • Katherine

    This was a great topic.  Ben, it seemed to me that most callers to the show responded as if your principal goal was to criticize Emerson personally.  But it seems to me that you were using humor to make a very apt point about the Emersonian thread in our national culture. Yes, there are some situations that call for standing up for what you believe in.  But maybe you had better decide what you believe in by a more sophisticated process than consulting your own heartstrings.  In the Catholic moral tradition, conscience is paramount in the end, but you are obliged to “form” your conscience by acquiring relevant knowledge and an understanding of moral principles first–in other words, you don’t get to be an ignoramus, and then just do what you feel.  A little humility about how hard it is to really know what’s right would go a long way in American politics right now. 

    • Jeff K

      Also a little humility about how hard it is to really know ourselves–past our biases, prejudices, hopes, fears, desires, uncritical assumptions, etc. A life-long, evolving process, I think.

  • Canucklehead

    This episode has been a revelation to me – Emerson is not taught in Canadian schools.  As a Canadian who grew up with publicly funded health care, it has always mystified me how the self-described “wealthiest nation on earth” could fail to look after the health of its citizens. Indeed anyone who appears to care about the matter is attacked with derisive terms like “Obama-care”. Now I see that the teaching of Emerson as a core value has given America permission to watch their neighbours lose their homes & bankrupt themselves seeking care for an unexpected major illness or die in the process.
    I mean no disrespect to anyone. In fact I admire American self–reliance and wish many of my countrymen would exhibit a modicum of it. This has simply enlightened me as to the roots of this seeming indifference to fellow citizens.

    • Ellen Dibble

      I think it’s also the mathematic algorithms that let the campaigns do surveys and divide up single-interest voters (much as algorithms — and huge computer power — allowed Wall Street to play using the “interest” of profit maximization, with similar selfish effects), and direct campaigns according to how selfishness could be reined in and “driven.”  Does Canada allow campaigns to be funded by unidentified PACs?  Do you have a Citizens United decision that allows the richest to back all parties, or swamp them on all the airways, all the tweets, wherever one’s perspective can be swept?    Or do you have a country where freedom of speech does not mean freedom to be as Big as your Wallet?

  • Still Here

    Look where a nanny state got us; those who don’t have confidence in themselves turn to the government.  The government, in turn, never has enough and is populated by people trying to justify and extend their existence; the result is ever-growing budgets and confiscation of the labors of hard-working wage earners.  Self-reliance is dead.

    • Jeff K

      There is such a thing as balance. Balance between individual rights/responsibilities and group rights/responsibilities. Serious, thinking people have long sought the balance. Ideological people–on either side–have long obfuscated it.

  • Unfetteredfuture

    The “Self” of Emerson is derived from the Upanishads. It speaks to the potential of people to find their connection with everything everywhere and in doing so find success in living and beyond.

    • HYA

      Exactly. While India is one of the most superstitious places you may find, the Hindu belief of Brahma starts with the self. It says that God is inside you, so be honest to yourself, realize your flaws, be critical of Yourself. Two students learn two different lessons from the same teacher/same idea and same chapter. It’s what you learn from Emerson, or from anyone. It’s like two brothers learning different lessons from the same words said by the Father. This is one of the best NPR programs I’ve heard. Keep it up!

      • Jeff K


  • Kathleen in Pittsburgh

    I would like add a little historical perspective to the very interesting on-air discussion on Emerson’s essay, Self Reliance.  As a UU historian, I have written about him in my own work — Sacred Service in Civic Space — but must give credit to others’ work that has informed my own. 

    Scott Russell Sanders argues that Emerson wrote Self Reliance (1842) to defend himself against the criticism heaped on him after giving his Divinity School Address (1838).  The latter was an address to the graduating class of ministerial students at Harvard Divinity School, in which he advocated for other sources of divine revelation besides the Bible — like Nature and one’s one deeper sense of soul.  Each person is in himself “a newborn bard of the holy ghost.” 

    Emerson’s later work demonstrates his belief that to have God in oneself enlarged one’s responsibility for moral action. Here I draw on the work of another UU historian, David Robinson.  In 1842, Emerson wrote (I love this quote!): “We are not permitted to stand as spectators in the pageant which the times exhibit;  we are parties also, and have a responsibility which is not to be declined.”  He condemned U.S. treatment of Native Americans and wrote to President Martin Van Buren in indignation over the plan to remove Cherokee Indians from Georgia: “In the name of God, sir, we ask you if this is so?” 

    In 1844, he gave a speech to honor the tenth anniversary of British emancipation of slavery.  The research he did for this speech raised his awareness of the horrors of slavery: “I am heartsick when I read how they came here and how they are kept here.”   He connected the political power behind slavery to the “Party of Property”: “Our merchants do not believe in anything but their trade…And the power of money is so obtrusive as to exclude the view of the larger powers that control it.”

    I think this historical perspective sheds a clearer light on Emerson’s ideas on Self Reliance.  Without context, we lose a great deal of its true significance.

    • Jeff K

      Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Dan Emerson

    Agree with those who think, great show, though I’m biased (inherited :) 
    As to question  Too much Self-Reliance? Impossible, assuming correct definition of Self-Reliance :>)
    Congrats and thanks to all, especially Ben for a very interesting, provocative/controversial, and clearly ‘personal’ piece in the NYTs. No doubt it inspired Tom to open the door to further debate. Cause and effect at work perhaps…

    Seems also to be a reminder of the law of cycles/repetition – if memory serves,  a similar concern/critique Emerson (RWE) was raised around 1900s on premise that concept of self-reliance was justifiable foundation of “robber” baron’s power and influence (nice try barons..). I believe a very effective biting cartoon at the time portrayed Self-reliance as cause of all the gluttonous, selfish actions, the appalling have- have not conditions, the radical gap between the few with vast wealth and millions living in profound poverty during the gilded age.

    A misunderstanding (misuse?) of RWE’s teachings is not unusual. Seems to me all of us responsible thinking individuals frequently and selectively use (subvert?) wise teachings and ideas to support highly subjective viewpoints and action, including teachers like “Mr. Sideways”. In  which case RWE quote along lines of “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say.” may prove useful guideline as to motive and intent of the doer.  Another dictum to keep in mind is one along lines of “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
     Me thinks my ancestor would heartily approve of the Ben’s effort – and given his love of rhetoric, grammer, logic and kin – most likely would’ve delighted at chance to jump into the fray of ideas.  Bob Richardson’s wonderful biography “Emerson: Mind on Fire” is an excellent study of RWE, his foibles, flaws, as well as his strengths, including examples of his love of impassioned, intelligent, thoughtful debate.
    The highly tempting and delicious vices RWE cautioned us to be aware of (becoming possessed by the allure of hard and fast material/perceptible world and/or trapped in the invisible world of the emotional, imaginary and theoretical-hypothetical, of vanity, primogeniture, pride, egotism, ignorance, the cold and impersonal intellect-reason, the fearful, the envious, jealous, bitter) as well as the virtues and uplifting high principles and values he so vigorously suppported and encouraged (appreciation of nature, of beauty, development of consciousness, of compassion, integrity, courage, trust, faith, honor, respect, tolerance, patience, persistance, forgiveness) are as old as humanity.
    And without those ‘temptations’,  without ‘evil’, what?
    No choices, no learning, no development. After all, assuming free will exists, how does anyone learn how to distinguish between the true, the vital, the essential ( the eternal, the unselfish) from the false, the transitory, without having a choice?   Who I vote for, what I spend money on, who I associate with, what I value, what kind of humor I enjoy,  are all clear testimony to my level of maturity, the purpose and intent of my thinking, feeling, and doing. And to my level of “Self-Reliance” or as another teacher put it, my level of “Freedom” – from my own weaknesses.

    How else can learning and maturation occur other than by making choices and living with the consequences?  Being warned not to touch a burning hot surface, or not to accept someone’s else’s ideas or advice blindly are fine concepts. But only when one puts one’s hand in the flame, or falls for no-interest-120% of value mortgage offer or that Hussein was equal to Hitler, does one have chance to connect a concept/knowledge to a direct perception/observation, allowing for, voila, ‘understanding”.
    The biography and legacy of individuals like RWE, Gandhi, Thoreau, Steiner,Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Tolstoy, Yogananda, Shakespeare, Goethe, Bach, Da Vinci, Darwin, Saul-Paul, St.John, Einstein, Dante, Michelangelo, Mother Mary, Buddha, The Christ, as well as Edison, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Tesla, Steve Jobs, along with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Caesar, Nero etc, offer much to those with eyes that see, ears that hear. 

    Kudo’s to Tom, Ben, Alex and all those who called in; keep the fires burning… here’s to an ever more enlightening 2012 and on..

    Warmest Regards,
    Dan Emerson

  • Modavations

    Saying “Self Reliance” to a lefty is like showing Dracula a silver cross.

    • Jeff K

      Then presumably you’ll exempt Pres. Obama from the “lefty” label, as he stressed self-reliance and personal responsibility in his inauguration address. Note: it was an inauguration; he wasn’t campaigning. Please don’t stereotype; there is a lot of nuance on “the left” these days.

  • Roymerritt19

    The author is oh so very correct.  If one is convinced his opinion is paramount then they may come believe it is their option to ignore everything contrary to that opinion including the facts of the matter.  It can lead one to become disciples to demagogues that sustain their opinion.  Look at our politics these days as has been mentioned.  Birthers, deniers of climate change, conspirators of every stripe.  Self reliance is all good and well, but when it is means improving my position in life at the expense of all else and the community at large then it becomes a destructive force that undermines society.  I think his vehemence toward Emerson has made some listeners overwrought and convinced he is taking cheap shots at the icon and therefore are dismissive of his take on the man.   

  • Cpeth

    While Emerson was writing about self-reliance he didn’t expect it in those around him.  He was almost single-handedly keeping the rest of his Transcendental friends afloat.  He gave money to Thoreau and let him live in the Emerson house.  He found housing for the Alcott family and often paid their rent and bills.  He managed to do this with monies he got by sueing his first wife’s family after she died.  Just saying…

    • Sofia

      He “gave money to Thoreau”–a bit understated. He used Thoreau as a nanny for his kids while he went off lecturing and such. Thoreau’s “other job” was running his family’s semi-famous pencil-making business.

      Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” best read in context with other essays like “Nature” and “The Oversoul.”

  • Roy Mac

    This is a bunch of horse shit!  How does your guest know what Emerson meant?  A brain meld?  A waste of air time, not to mention MY time!  What’s next?  A navel-gazing episode of Mozart’s inner thoughts?

    • Jeff K

      Open-minded consideration is a wonderful thing!

      • Jeff K

        Mr. Mac, I think the guests are making informed inferences based on a wide reading of Emerson’s works wherein he elaborates on what he meant. Hardly a waste of time; I think both guests compliment each other with valuable insights and much provocation for reflection. I’m sorry you’ve missed out on that.

  • Daveed

    Emerson was okay, I guess….but Lake and Palmer…those guys rocked!

  • Jcgardner

    If looking to your your own heart for the truth is egotistical, you must think that a person should look to someone else. Who would that be?

  • Fredlinskip

    On your “contact us” page, you suggest contacting you here.

    Why can I no longer listen to your show online.

    Have you made recent changes to your media player access somehow??

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1661941966 Mark Lindamood

    Emerson was forever striving for the evolution of a race of fully rational men.  Such a maturely rational people would find themselves NOT at constant odds with one another in “small-self,” ephemeral quests of individuality, but most often in broad agreement on right principles — a collective “large self” possessed of Right Mind, as taught by Buddhism.  Emerson today would abhor the notion that everyone’s “gut” was as sacredly correct as his neighbor’s.  He would abhor the evidence-dismissing “birthers” and “climate change deniers” discussed on the show today, for their failure to accept clear evidence.  He would abhor the banner of false patriotism being waved by today’s “tea party” as a mere tool to do create blind, unthinking conformity (Thoreau’s .  He would abhor Mitt Romney, whose flip-flops (not, mind you, today’s “hard words” of new, better conviction) are calculated to deceive the particular audience at hand, calculated to raise up the speaker, not his fellow men.  Emerson was deeply concerned for his fellow men.  He dedicated his life to the expression of grand ideas to help them become better men, not a not a race of unthinking, and thus gullible, individuals caught up in the wheels of an impoverished, valueless society.

  • Jonaid

    I think it can’t be overstated that “Self-reliance” should not be confused with selfishness. There is some apparent arrogance in the tone of the essay and his other writings, which goes back to his Master Plato, but that tone has an essential irony. Emerson deconstructs the ego of a “normal” individual by praising an infant and mocking consistency. But — I am sorry Tom — his praise of inconsistency does not help an opportunist or what Arabs call ebn el waqt (the son of times). I know you were tongue in cheek but people may have misunderstood you. While some of us change our mind for selfish goals or because of cowardice, others change to deconstruct our ego, to question the very possibility of identity.

    This dialectic is provocative in Sufism too. Mansur was being hanged in Iraq for heresy and he kept saying “I am God,” except he meant I have destoryed my ego so completely that I have dissolved my identity in God. I have become Him. Of course, he did not care to clarify his meaning either. That is why Sufis, Hindus, mystics, and Transcendentalists despised “names” and concretes and reputations.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jimmy-TheFish/100000139595167 Jimmy TheFish

    Self reliance means you have to do it yourself, its about  having an indomitable spirit. Without the “fire in your belly” no amount of “extra help” is going to save you. It has to come from within and thats the trouble with the liberal mindset. Leftists will often say that a person who is born poor will die poor, if a poor person listens to this they will have no hope (and hope is all they have) However if they the “will” and work hard then there is a good chance that they will succeed. 

    • Stenam7

      I think it’s a problem of expectations; in many cases of ridiculous expectations. A poor person who works hard has a good chance of at least improving their lot through an indomitable spirit. And it can also be a matter of self-respect. But there comes about at times this Horatio Alger bullshit that NOT ONLY can anyone pull themselves up by their own boot straps to go from human trash to a lord of all creation, but that it is both very likely and something that everyone SHOULD aspire to. That everyone should set their sights so high. 

      But there’s problems with that. It completely ignores what the person being influenced actually desires and the intensity of those desires. Indeed, being someone with a low intensity of desire or drive becomes a stigma. Why? What’s wrong with not wanting to be king? Huh? I’m not even talking about a poor person giving up because they don’t believe they’ll ever be a CEO. I’m talking about them being reviled by a culture that has idolized the self-made rich and distorted the story of how they became rich. No one became rich from 100% will power. Will power was needed. But even given their success, why does that make them morally powerful icons? 

      They have certainly created things or organised things in a way that can and does improve people’s lives. Which is great. The successful person already has their reward, why put them on a pedestal? And why lower and lessen the moral importance of the person who is satisfied with less and satisfied to achieve less? 

      I recall my upbringing in a private Christian brothers school. Non-participation was such a stigmatizing thing, and many times outright forbidden. Nothing evoked the kind of ire from some teachers more than the indifference of a student. And you wanna know something? That…that’s very British. It’s not American individualism. The major adaptation made in this American brand of this very British bulldog value system, is that in it’s American form it lacks, gladly, tall-poppy syndrome and does not hold social welfare to be sacrosanct. 

      Other than that, libertarianism isn’t based on American individualism. It’s an evolution of the British bulldog spirit that enabled such a small nation to become so damn powerful and influential when the opportunities arose. 

    • Drumsticksusa

      This, Jim, the kind of view that Emerson would recoil against. The NY Times today (1/5) reports that “Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe in part because of the depth of poverty, family background and the gaps between the rich and the rest.”  But also — before you recoil at the NY Times — even the conservative National Review has also reported that “most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility.”  Your simplistic reduction that “fire in the belly” is what makes one or breaks one ignores our ever more complicated webs of societal conditions and interactions. Social barriers are far more complex than they were in Emerson’s time, the larger global population — by many orders-of-magnitude — being just one of the massively changed conditions. Self-starting initiative is an admirable personal virtue, and it can still work for many who work especially hard and have good luck. But you strongly demonstrate facile, “rightist” group-think (very un-self-reliant of you) when you trot out conservative talking points about how “leftists” think about the poor.  That “leftists” want to redistribute wealth merely for the sake of doing so is wildly incorrect, despite the fact that it gets good traction with those among us easily distracted with such things as the flag, or the cross, or the rugged-individual-of-the-frontier images so often used to by politicians to shill and seduce.

  • Anonymous

    Turns out America has fallen behind in terms of opportunity.  We might want to think twice about the notion that so many of us are slackers. 

    “Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.”


    And the numbers are there to prove it.  Just for a couple of days, I’d like to put duct tape over the mighty mouth of the right and have a grown-up discussion about how to reclaim America’s boundless optimism and opportunity.  From Reagan on, we’ve been overly willing to smash others in order to have more ourselves.  That’s not what anyone would call “self-reliance.”  It’s just brutal self-absorption with a new label:  “family values.”

    • Anonymous

      Oh, and whether you get a chance to have those “family values” depends on which family you belong to.  The Bank of New York/Mellon family?  The Goldman Sachs family?  Hey, you’re in!

  • Austin

    Great discussion. I have struggled with Emerson’s prescriptions in “Self Reliance” to the point where I put t down for a year. I oringially read it and and used it as a source of inspiration and confidence, almost taking the words he says too literally. It is a very powerful piece of writing and, thanks to discussions like this, it better helps to understand it. But I also think the content of the writing is central to the American state today: balancing the individual interests with that of the whole. It is in my opinion one of the most central discussions to have in order to have a better America. So much stuff to be said, which I had more time.

  • mikey

    The third world is Republican paradise! 

    The third world is full of self reliant people. My buddy just went down to El Salvador to help dig a well so his mother in law could have running water.  The government won’t give you roads, schools, running water or anything else! They probably won’t collect much in taxes and you can grab a weapon and settle your own score no need for laws since money buys those too! Whenever those little six year old kids in the street want something to eat I always ask them why they haven’t started a hedge fund yet and give them a copy of Atlas Shrugged. 

  • mikey

    Republican love to confuse socialized opportunity and socialized money. If the government hands you a welfare check for doing nothing then that is socialized money. If the government buys a second grader an elementary school education that is socializing opportunity. 

  • Alan

    THIS IS A GENERAL COMMENT not pertaining to this program, which was quite interesting.  Given that “On Point” sets a standard for civility (although some comments posted are not civil), I would ask you, Mr. Ashbrook, to strongly encourage your guests to follow a traditional path when a guest is referring to the President of the United States and other citizens who hold important positions in our government.  For example, one should refer to “Mr. Obama” or “President Obama,” not merely (and crudely) “Obama.”  When Mr. Bush held the office from 2001 to 2009, I rarely supported anything he did.  (I am a staunch independent.)  But, I taught my daughter that saying “Mr. Bush” was a mark of intelligence and courtesy.  She has carried that lesson into her adult life.  Our culture is awash in crude language that marks us as little more than barbarians.  “On Point,” at least, can do better.

    • Teacher

      I completely agree, Alan.  Civility is seemingly rare today.

    • Kathleen in Pittsburgh

      Thank you, Alan.  I so appreciate your making this point.  I have heard our President referred to again and again and again simply as “Obama” — but news commentators and pundits on every network — and they should ALL know better.  Very disrespectful.  You are right — none of these people referred to President Bush by his last name alone when he was in office.  What is different now?  Why is it okay now, when it was not okay then?

  • notafeminista

    Self-reliance has nothing to do with self-centeredness.  In fact, I daresay that the least self-reliant among us are the most self-centered.   Those who are truly self-reliant cannot afford self-centeredness.

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  • Potter

    I have not read Mr. Anastas article. I have read “Self Reliance” more than once at different times in my life and have found it brilliant and at the same time comforting since it’s truths are recognizable. From this discussion, I connect to and prefer Mr. Zakaras interpretation of the essay. I don’t connect self-centeredness with connecting to ones’ inner self. The former is about insecurity, the latter is the remedy.

  • Mitch Hampton
  • Anonymous

    todays consumerism – worship of the almighty $$$ egged on by corporate media sold by mind numbing commercials we all offer obeience to by rushing out to buy-buy-buy

    george w’s answer to 911 …………… shop – fly – cut taxes and go to war

    mayor bloomberg sent a militarized police force in the middle of the night to rout occupy wall street – and specifically destroy a library that promoted the diverse views that promote the life long Self-reflection Emerson promoted as the means to a good life based in the social, economic justice emerging from a strong individual moral sense that his church still promotes

  • Me

    It’s me, myself and screw you today! With that attitude, we will loose our Democracy!!

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Sep 3, 2014
This still image from an undated video released by Islamic State militants on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, purports to show journalist Steven Sotloff being held by the militant group. The Islamic State group has threatened to kill Sotloff if the United States doesn't stop its strikes against them in Iraq. Video released Tuesday, Sept. 02, 2014, purports to show Sotloff's murder by the same rebel group. (AP)

Another beheading claim and ISIS’s use of social media in its grab for power.

Sep 3, 2014
In this Fall 2013 photo provided by the University of Idaho, students in the University of Idaho’s first Semester in the Wild program take a class in the Frank Church-River Of No Return Wilderness, Idaho. (AP)

MacArthur “genius” Ruth DeFries looks at humanity’s long, deep integration with nature – and what comes next. She’s hopeful.

Sep 2, 2014
Confederate spymaster Rose O'Neal Greenhow, pictured with her daughter "Little" Rose in Washington, D.C.'s Old Capitol Prison in 1862. (Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

True stories of daring women during the Civil War. Best-selling author Karen Abbott shares their exploits in a new book: “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy.”

Sep 2, 2014
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks with Mark Wilson, event political speaker chairperson, with his wife Elain Chao, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, August 4, 2012. (AP)

Nine weeks counting now to the midterm elections. We’ll look at the key races and the stakes.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
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Tuesday, Sep 2, 2014

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Our Week In The Web: August 29, 2014
Friday, Aug 29, 2014

On hypothetical questions, Beyoncé and the unending flow of social media.

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Drew Bledsoe Is Scoring Touchdowns (In The Vineyards)
Thursday, Aug 28, 2014

Football great — and vineyard owner — Drew Bledsoe talks wine, onions and the weird way they intersect sometimes in Walla Walla, Washington.

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