Thursday, August 11, 2011

Our Book Club ... Emerson's Self Reliance

Chad has introduced a book club section on our Learning Center web site. We welcome any thoughts of yours concerning the essay by Emerson on "Self Reliance", which is the first writing being discussed.

We have also begun a student section on the site, since we teach government and economics to interested students during the academic year. Our first session was Monday. If you wish to attend, follow along, chime in or otherwise participate in our ongoing online educational effort, we welcome any assistance along those lines as well.

My daily musings have been categorized as daily thoughts in yet another section.

Thus, that brings us all up to date on the web site and its current configuration.

As mentioned, Chad selected as the initial book club essay "Self Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It's an excellent choice and a favorite of mine. One especially insightful paragraph in Emerson's essay reads as follows:

"What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between meanness and greatness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after one's own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

This section always brings to mind Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". It reads as follows:

"Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake
The only other sounds the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
But I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."

To me Emerson and Frost are each saying some very timely things for us to reflect upon in light of today's unsettling events throughout the world. Albeit said differently, they very much agree, at least as I interpret them, that we Americans have two basic roles with respect to our rights and responsibilities as citizens of a self governing and free society.

Emerson teaches that we must learn to listen to ourselves as we find our way to personal fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness. We are advised to reject the all too normal way of simply following the crowd or herd by conforming to what others do or say we should do. Quite simply, we must choose and then follow our own path through life. He further tells us that in addition to rejecting conformity for the sake of conformity, we must reject consistency for the sake of consistency, too. In other words, we must not fall into a rut and automatically do tomorrow that which we do today, just because it's consistent behavior. As time and circumstances change, we should always be at the ready to change both our minds and direction, too.

Accordingly, it is both our right and duty to think and act as individuals, as opposed to group followers, in light of the then existing circumstances. It's as simple and as difficult as that.

Our citizenship was based in large part on the ideals of individual freedom and self reliance. Those basic and fundamental rights are protected by our Constitution.

Yet in addition to these rights as individual citizens, we were also given duties and responsibilities. As members of a self governing and free society, we are called upon to assume a broader societal role by being both active and informed citizens.

Accordingly, as I interpret both Emerson and Frost, while we are encouraged to embrace the freedom and joy associated with individual solitude, we are also asked to engage as citizens of a greater society. For that matter, in addition to U.S. citizenship, we should remember that we are world citizens, too.

With respect to the U.S., other than national defense and security, we should not look to or otherwise depend upon the government for our happiness, prosperity or security. In fact, we should actively seek to limit the role of government to that of largely leaving us alone to pursue our chosen dreams.

Here are a few concluding thoughts.

1- Prosperity results from the independent actions of individuals acting privately in a free market and never from government.

2- With respect to self reliance versus conformity, had more of us listened to Emerson, and for that matter to our parents as well, we wouldn't have the massive and principally real estate related debt deflation in the private sector today. We wouldn't have incurred today's massive public sector debt either.

3- Neither would we be following too closely behind the disastrous example of Europe's welfare states, both with regard to medical care and other entitlements. We will find only pain by conforming to or following the European example of a big and socialist government. In that regard, many European countries are already insolvent, and at best their economies are going to be quite weak for years to come. As for us here in the good old U.S.A., it's time to get our act together. Past time, in fact.

Thanks. Bob.


  1. Regarding #2 of your last 3 points, I think of another of Emerson's points in "Self Reliance." Hopefully I will make a little sense here.

    It is certainly true that had "we" not followed the herd in the pursuit of the "can't miss" real estate investment and "free lunch" political schemes, we certainly would not face the uphill battles imposed by our resulting indebtedness.

    Toward the end of the essay, Emerson writes:

    "Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts."


    "Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not."

    Interpreting this stuff is not easy for me. But I relate these passages and #2 from your post by thinking that "we (society)" will at all times be victims of the herd mentality. And if we (society) manage to resist some temptations that defy logic, like chasing a "bubble" type investment or living beyond our means, we will likely give in to other equally illogical and damaging temptations.

    While "we" certainly progress technologically and materially, all generations of people repeat variations of the same mistake. Maybe Emerson was onto something when he said at another point in the essay that this is because people die and that their experiences die with them, leaving future generations to learn again for the first time.

  2. Maybe he's saying that we'll always be humans and thus fallible. We can't get to perfect, but we can't stop striving for perfection.

    In other words, as humans we'll always make mistakes. No doubt about it. That said, we needn't make the same ones each time.

    We can learn, both as individuals and especially as societies. And then we can and should pass that learning on to others, including our descendants.

    What they choose to do with that vicarious knowledge is up to them, of course.

    Regarding Emerson's wave analogy, my interpretation is that society is the wave and people are the water. "Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not."

    Accordingly, we should strive to solve the problems we know about, and then wait to see what new ones we're created.

    I guess that's what progress is all about. Unlike insanity, of course.