Emerson’s Self-Reliance in the Public Sphere

John Kamalu

I would start by saying that there exist for man no given, natural rights that have always been and will continue to be.  Whether we claim they are “god-given” or “self-evident,” every right heretofore secured for man has been secured by man. Every institutional value that currently exists in our society is the result of one man or woman’s will rising above, resisting, or leading the will of others.  It is a will reinforced with resolve enough to confront and maintain its form against the threats and pressures of conformity.  According to Kant, this conformity is one our society chooses, a decision we make to live in a “self-incurred immaturity,” in which we never fail to defer to the authority of another (Kant, 58).  In fact, by passively refusing to engage our society, we actively choose to accept it, which, to Hannah Arendt, is a denial of our obligation to make our claim on and perform in the public sphere.  In this passivity, we forfeit our public influence, and we fail to realize our freedom in full.  Freedom is something we seize, something others deny us.  It cannot be wished into existence: any individual or organization that wants to bring about change, in order to shake that society of its unthinking conformity and ignorance, must rely upon the their own agency or the agency of certain members to enlighten and engage the public.

Conformity weighs down on the public just like any other widespread, institutional problem.  It is founded upon givens, or at least what the dominant part of society defines as given, blanket ideas which serve the interests of some but cannot possibly satisfy the wellbeing of all.  Thusly, says Kant, when every policy is bolstered by tradition, when there is someone to whom we can defer in every aspect of our lives, “It is so easy to be immature” (Kant, 58).  It is so easy to let others do the thinking, to latch on to the decisions of others because we would rather not make the effort ourselves.  This is why, according to Kant, it is so easy also for “others to set themselves up as guardians… [who] take care that the far greater part of mankind… regard the step to maturity as not only difficult but also very dangerous” (Kant 58).   What distinguishes Kant’s guardian from a true leader is that a guardian maintains the present state of society for his own sake.  Regardless of whether his desired way of life at all aligns with that of the public majority, the former is his lone concern.  He guards whatever stale and vulnerable custom he thrives on by manipulating the people into underappreciating their own agency, and by accustoming them to sloth and timidity.

The guardian does not simply mislead the people into believing that their influence is negligent; he throws a net of doubt over the public that tells them that they have no access to whatever little power they could muster.  In doing so, the guardian abuses the public’s dependent tendencies not only by throwing his full weight behind his own selfish benefit, but also by stacking all his influence against the individual’s ability to rationalize his society for himself.  And more than anything, he hopes that a sense of complacency will invade the public sphere.  Complacency is the danger of conformity; it resides in the willingness of people to adopt most any conventional way of thinking, so long as it has enough history, enough media coverage, or enough inflammatory fanaticism behind it.  Yet while a portion, or maybe even the majority, of popular thought may be sound in principle, to attribute automatic certitude to all prevalent philosophies, especially those adopted by the previous generation, is an error.  This is how Kant ratifies our inability to ever be in an enlightened age: by submitting ourselves to the popular thought held by men and women of the past, we allow our society to be placed “in a situation in which it becomes impossible for it to broaden its knowledge…, to cleans itself of errors, and generally to progress in enlightenment” (Kant, 61).  For in doing so, we risk exchanging our society’s rationality for the outdated understanding of those who no longer have a place among today’s multiplicity of subjectivities.   For this reason, Kant figures the most that can ever be achieved by a human society is an age of enlightenment, in which a strong importance is given to public inspection and independent reason.

Figure 1. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Figure 1. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Influenced by this Kantian tradition, the 19th century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson “operated with the sense that a new era was at hand” (Goodman, Ralph Waldo Emerson).  Conformity, as he saw it, was the enemy of this new era, a rotten state of oppression and misconception to be combatted by an independent perspective and unflagging awareness of oneself and reality, a way of independent living he referred to as self-reliance.  In fact, in his essay entitled “Self-Reliance,” Emerson makes two statements which seem to validate Kant’s understanding of society as vulnerable to the false security promised by selfish and outdated guardians.

(1) “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.  The virtue in most request is conformity.  Self-reliance is its aversion” (Self-Reliance).  Cast in a Kantian light, those members who hold the larger shares in this joint-stock company, and who therefore have a greater stake in society at some particular moment, perfectly embody Kant’s “guardians.”  And I believe Emerson would be hard-pressed to disagree.  This joint-stock society that he sees before him is one that relies completely on the sacrifice of the common man’s independence.  Emerson is suggesting that the more conformity is requested, the more the wellbeing of the common man, whom conformity does not benefit, is limited – the only way to avoid losing big is to never make an investment.

The virtue in most request is conformity.  Self-reliance is its aversion.

(2) “Society is a wave.  The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not.  The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge.  Its unity is only phenomena.  The persons who make up the nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them” (Self-Reliance).  The public policy devised by the men and women of yesterday should not be assumed proper today, just as the policy devised today should not be assumed proper tomorrow.  Rather, the mature society ought to bring such time-sensitive issues under routine inspection.  This wave model of society is what Kant must have structured his political philosophy around, and what must have made him say that we can never be in an enlightened age.  One wave is never an exact replica of the last, so it is up the current pool to ensure for themselves that any policy they observe is still in the public’s best interest.

The persons who make up the nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them.

Emerson also commits himself to the idea of causation – that any action, desirable or not, was only made possible by someone taking enough action to overcome any direct opposition.  “All successful men have agreed in one thing, – they were causationists.  They believed… that there was not a weak or a cracked link in the chain that joins the first and the last of things” (Conduct of Life 18).  This is a belief which not only allows all people to have agency and to direct the course of their own lives, but also holds them accountable for every action taken to determine this course.  If we regard Emerson’s account as true, we can interchangeably substitute self-reliance for causation.  He persuades us that we can never trust any good in our lives to ever passively fall into our hands, and that everything we have come into was actually secured by us or for us in some way.  This suggests then that any goodness we do encounter, though perhaps not of our accord, could have been better had we only taken greater action or been more proactive in its appropriation.  Of course, this implies that any bad situation we find ourselves in was chosen as well, whether by the active cruelty of another or the passive inclinations of our own ignorance.

All successful men have agreed in one thing, – they were causationists.  They believed… that there was not a weak or a cracked link in the chain that joins the first and the last of things.

But in “Self-Reliance,” we see that Emerson designates most men (non-causationists) as gamblers trying to play Fortune – he advises us to “leave as unlawful these winnings [of Fortune], and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God… [and] sit hereafter out of fear from her [Fortune’s] rotations” (Self-Reliance).  In all modes of gambling, the player is wont to lose; by “unlawful,” Emerson meant unreliable, having no precedent as laws do, and not aligned with the consistency of Cause and Effect.  He wishes for us to rely on our own causation alone as the means to escape from the wheel of Fortune, which manifests not only in nature’s random occurrences but also in the abrasive actions taken against us by opposing subjectivities and societal guardians.

Emerson was a Kantian scholar.  He did not leave his philosophy to theory, but rather involved himself with the public issues of his time.  In a lecture given at New York on the Fugitive Slave Act, Emerson speaks out against the shallowness of the faith we put in law: “The law was right, excellent law for the lambs.  But what if unhappily the judges were chosen from the wolves, and give to all the law a wolfish interpretation… These things show that no forms, neither constitutions, nor laws, nor covenants, nor churches, nor bibles, are of any use in themselves” (The Fugitive Slave Law).

Figure 1. A poster warning colored people of kidnappers and slave catchers protected under the Fugitive Slave Act (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Figure 1. A poster warning colored people of kidnappers and slave catchers protected under the Fugitive Slave Act, which Emerson found immoral (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

He implies that it is our responsibility as public members to recognize when we cannot or when we ought not to follow or commit ourselves to the decisions of any governing body based solely on our allegiance to an existing establishment.  For in doing so, we not only forgo our own rationality, but we also risk throwing our entire weight behind something that is in some way unsound.  Emerson maintains that the only worthy interpretation is that which one verifies for himself: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind… No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature… the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (Self-Reliance).  He is firm in his belief that it is left entirely to us to determine the justness of a decision, and that it is not only unwise but pointless to adopt the raw opinion of another.  But what should an individual or a community do when they find fundamental fault with an unyielding society?

In the case of Martin Luther King Jr., a man known to have been influenced by Emerson and his works, the answer lay in civil disobedience.  Yet why civil disobedience as opposed to violent retribution – because the former allows society to undergo a therapeutic reevaluation that the latter can never offer.  It is a method which does not make an enemy out of the public, but affects it all the same.  It is a method in which, as portrayed in the following image, “everybody shares in the victory” (Fellowship of Reconciliation 12).

Figure 1. A 1957 clipping which depicts Martin Luther King referring to the success of Mahatma Gandhi against the British to inspire and motivate his own movement (Fellowship of Reconciliation 11).

Figure 1. A 1957 clipping which depicts Martin Luther King referring to the success of Mahatma Gandhi against the British to inspire and motivate his own movement (Fellowship of Reconciliation 12).

King understands the consequences which violence in the Civil Rights Movement would beget, stating “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”).  Soon after, in the same speech, he cites the undivided media attention garnered by contemporary violent demonstrations to remind his audience that a violent movement does not inspire any transformative thought on part of the public, and instead only drowns the formative issue.  It becomes akin to a revolution, which Kant says “can never bring about the true reform of a way of thinking.  Rather, new prejudices will serve, like the old, as the leading strings of the thoughtless masses” (Kant, 59).  Then why any sort of disobedience at all?  King asks this question himself – “‘How can you advocate braking some laws and obeying others?’” – and answers it by citing that two kinds of laws, just and unjust, exist, and that the latter deserves no reverence because it is morally wrong (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”).  Then using Emerson’s self-reliant rationality, King does indeed take it upon himself to determine the acceptability of a law, and finds that it is morality wherein its justice lies.

King led the civil rights movement as one of Emerson’s causationists.  He knew that equality would never come about naturally, and that action had to be taken against the pressures of an ignorant society if any progress were to be made.  And although his movement found a great amount of support amongst other communities, it was nonetheless met with an overwhelming amount of resistance – a resistance that told African Americans to give up, to settle, and to be satisfied.  But in response to that question, “When will you be satisfied?” King gives a resounding negative; he knows that to ever say that this or that is enough, to ever lose momentum, is to take the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” (“I Have a Dream”).  In the below image, we see an example of public antagonism, wherein an officer belittles the urgency of the Civil Rights Movement, asking, “Why don’t you people get wise to yourselves and give up?” (Fellowship of Reconciliation, 6).  But for King, to stop short of complete freedom was unthinkable.

Figure 2. A 1957 clipping which depicts a police officer ticketing Martin Luther King and asking when he will give up on the movement (Fellowship of Reconciliation 6).

Figure 3. A 1957 clipping which depicts a police officer ticketing Martin Luther King and asking when he will give up on the movement (Fellowship of Reconciliation, 6).

For to let up, to compromise with and conform to public pressure, would only be to remain in Kantian “immaturity.”  King encourages his supporters not to listen to the “guardians” who would have them stall and accept their second class citizenship, but instead to assert their self-reliance by consolidating their economic influence: he calls for them to “anchor [their] direct action with the power of economic withdrawal” and to “strengthen black institutions” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”).  By refusing to associate with certain discriminating businesses while at the same time strengthening their own, they introduce the entire public, not just those in politics, to the value and necessity of their community, and to the reality and immorality of the systemic problems they face.  To quote King: “the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will eventually open the door to negotiation” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”).  For society to even begin to consider change, a movement must create a situation so in need of attention that it becomes impossible to ignore, and has to be given due acknowledgement befitting its gravity.  But although it is based strongly in principle, this method’s success depends on the solidarity of the community, which in turn depends on the commitment of the individuals. This method, partially detailed in the image below, requires that every man and woman become, and not await, the movement for change they want to see.  So King, in his public appearances, touches not only upon how society as a whole ought to be, but also upon how it is up to the individual to make it so, whether by reallocating his finances, refusing to purchase Coca-Cola, etc.

Figure 1. A 1957 clipping which invokes the name and image of Martin Luther King encourages the individual to be self-reliant in the Civil Rights Movement (Fellowship of Reconciliation 13).

Figure 4. A 1957 clipping which invokes the name and image of Martin Luther King encourages individuals to take the Civil Rights Movement into their own hands (Fellowship of Reconciliation 13).

Conclusively: power “resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim” (Self-Reliance).  For Emerson, it suffices not to stand immobile as our society washes over and consumes our individuality.  For him it is imperative both that we challenge the certitude given to the day’s prevailing conceptions and that we seek to engage and alter any misconception which we happen to find among them.  For to will alone is not enough; only when the will is performed and put into action of our own accord can we seize for ourselves a bit of independence.  Only by avoiding the push of our guardians, taking the first steps towards intellectual maturity, and abandoning our complacent tendencies can we think ourselves fit to engage the public sphere.  And once there, by self-reliance alone can we bring ourselves to defend our own rights, to put into practice our own freedoms, and to be our own person.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Conduct of Life, the. South Bend, IN, USA: Infomotions, Inc., 2001. Web.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Experience.” About.com. About.com, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Politics.” About.com. About.com, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” About.com. About.com, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works. New York and Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904; Bartleby.com, 2013.

Fellowship of Reconciliation. “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

Goodman, Russel B. “Freedom in the Philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Tulane Studies in Philosophy 35 (1987): 5-10. Print.

Goodman, Russell, “Ralph Waldo Emerson”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Goodman, Russell, “Transcendentalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” Trans. James Schmidt. What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-century Answers and Twentieth-century Questions. Berkeley: U of California, 1996. 59-63. Print.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream…” N.p.: National Archives, n.d. PDF.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Letter. Aug. 1963. The Negro Is Your Brother. Vol. 212. N.p.: Atlantic Monthly, 1963. 78-88. The Atlantic. 16 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Patterson, Anita Haya. From Emerson to King: Democracy, Race, and the Politics of Protest. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print. W.E.B. Du Bois Institute.

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