The primary theme of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is, you guessed it, self-reliance. The individual must disregard the institutions and opinions of others as they seek to find that which we all desire: truth.
I’m not a Transcendentalist scholar, so I don’t plan to analyze Emerson’s philosophy on religion and the self. Nor will I try to philosophize the effects of the ideas taken to the extreme like, what happens if we all say, “Screw everything; I’m the only one that matters.”
Rather, I want to explore the encouragements Emerson alludes to about true knowledge and doing the work.
Seeking knowledge, reading, and gaining wisdom are virtuous acts. In a world of ephemeral content and binge-watching TV, they are probably some of the most virtuous acts, but there is danger in seeking knowledge from other people, and only seeking knowledge from other people.
The independence of solitude
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion,” Emerson writes. “It is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” One interpretation of that passage is that the monk who escapes life and lives off the grid is no better than one caught up in the fleeting opinions of the world. Rather, the true test of originality and fortitude of the mind is he who can live in the midst of chaos of the world and still think as if they’re living in solitude.
But there’s another interpretation.
The “world’s opinions” could be that of People magazine, The New York Times, or your Facebook group with moms who think the neighborhood watch is the most evil entity in the world. But the “world’s opinions” Emerson references could also be the content you consume: the books you read, the podcasts you listen to, and the thinkers you follow on Twitter. If their thoughts are also your thoughts, you’re living in the midst of the world’s opinions. You’re no genius because you can find a niche article online and regurgitate the thoughts of the author as your own. It is easy in the world to live after the opinions of the authors you consume.
What “the great man” or women do is read the great articles and books, yet maintain their intellectual individuality. They read books, listen to podcasts, and watch lectures, but their beliefs, attitudes, and opinions are their own. They’re self-reliant. It is those people who are in the midst of the crowd but keeping perfect sweetness of the independence of solitude.
In the famous scene from Good Will Hunting, the Harvard student is living in the world of the world’s opinions. He sounds smart, but his words are from the mind of someone else, and Will calls him out on it.
Clark: I was just hoping you could give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the southern colonies. My contention is that prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities—especially in the southern colonies—could most aptly be characterized as agrarian pre-capital–
Will: [interrupting] Of course that's your contention. You're a first year grad student. You just got finished reading some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison probably, you’re gonna be convinced of that until next month when you get to James Lemon, then you’re gonna be talking about how the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist way back in 1740. That's gonna last until next year, you’re gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin’ about, you know, the Pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.
Clark: [taken aback] Well as a matter of fact I won't, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of —
Will: "Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth..." You got that from Vickers, Work in Essex County, Page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us—you have any thoughts of—of your own on this matter? Or do—is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend, you pawn it off as your own—your own idea just to impress some girls, embarrass my friend?
Don’t be Clark.
Allowing your own thoughts to form before letting those of somebody else’s liter your mind is crucial because often you’re smart enough to have the same thoughts someone writing for The New York Times has, yet you lack the time, discipline, or capability to 1) embrace them and 2) record them. When this becomes a pattern, you’re forced to interpret your thoughts in the words of someone else, and that is never a pleasant feeling.
Emerson knows this to be true, and he published this in the 1840s! He writes:
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
Think, my darling, think! You know how to do it. It’s not hard, it just takes time. Often that time needs to be spent in actual solitude, which is the difficult part. Thinking is easy. Quieting the world around you enough to put yourself into a position to think is not, which is why original thought is rare.
Don’t allow another day to pass in which you’re forced to take with shame your own opinion from someone else.
The allures of knowledge
Study and reading great works can enrich your life, but they’re also stops on the path paved to irrelevancy, for perpetual study without application is like a hamster on a wheel: forever work but you get nowhere.
“That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him,” Emerson writes. “ Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique…Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare.”
Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare.
That is the best sentence I’ve read all year.
I understand the irony there, because my favorite thing to do is read biographies. But Emerson isn’t bashing on the act of study itself; he’s exaggerating the uselessness that comes from only studying and never doing.
I could make an argument about PhD students who are in their mid-30s and have nothing to show for it other than academic papers about basket-weaving in the 1600s, but that seems harsh, so I shan’t.
Imagine instead a playwright. No no, rather someone who wishes to be a playwright in the future. They spend every waking hour reading Shakespeare, dissecting his diction and syntax and rhythm and rhyme and word formation process, but has never actually written a play. They go to the theatre every weekend and mingle with the actors, but have never tried being an actor themselves. Do you see Emerson’s point?
Imagine a developer, or rather someone who wants to be a developer. They read TLDR and listen to Techmeme on the way home. They check Hacker News and Indie Hackers every night to see what’s trending. They’ve taken courses in every programming language ever. Have they built anything that works? Probably not. Why? Because they’re studying.
Imagine someone who wants to write a novel. They do Julia Cameron’s morning pages every morning with their cup of coffee, and learn all about the shapes of stories from Kurt Vonnegut. They take creative writing classes at the local college and read breakdowns of the best movies to learn how to develop characters, but they’ve never written a book or even a short story.
One must do
Study, without application, is useless. Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. One will never be a playwright through the study of playwriting. One will never be a developer through the study of programming languages. One will never be a writer through the study of creative writing. One must do.
Originality in thought is the highest honor an intellectual and thinking person can achieve. Yet those thoughts by themselves are useless, selfish even. Who cares if you’ve found the cure to cancer, if you sit around reading more books on how to solve cancer. The highest thoughts must be paired with the simplest actions to be of worthy cause.