“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, with these words and others, formed the essay “Self-Reliance,” with which he began a philosophical and pop-cultural war on the idea of conformity, a war that wages on to the present day.
Conformity, generally understood as the acceptance of past ideas and present custom, has ever since been presented as anathema to the self-respecting individual. And such disgust towards convention had its benefits in the beginning of the 19th Century.
This disgust really came out of the Enlightenment, during which traditional assumptions of God’s existence and Scriptural literalism held back philosophy. By discarding such assumptions, philosophy was liberated from unsubstantiated metaphysical speculation and moved on to more practical matters, such as what is to be done about an oppressive government.
And thus, the revolutionizing spirit, begotten from Enlightenment philosophy and continuing in the doctrine of nonconformity, carried into the present with philosophers such as Nietzsche, and Rorty.
The general spirit of nonconformity revolves around letting go of traditional foundations in order to reduce our suffering. In the present day, cultural values such as “questioning authority” and “being yourself” reflect this popular nonconformist, revolutionary attitude. But what a contradiction it is to call an attitude both popular and nonconformist! Indeed, in becoming a value held common in pop culture, nonconformity faces an inconsistency. And this contradiction isn’t necessarily newly found.
Many have pointed out that Emerson’s call for self-reliance implies a reliance on Emerson himself: to follow his words implies conforming to a culture that he himself created. To follow another writer, it seems, requires an acceptance of their ideas and thus a conformity.
And what a strange responsibility is it anyway to be completely self-reliant? How can any individual be self-reliant when, as John Donne tells us, no man is an island? Even Plato referenced Socrates. Emerson himself drew inspiration from Thoreau!
But perhaps Emerson did not intend for his words to be taken so literally. Perhaps Emerson just wanted to tell us that we should question authority thoroughly, but accept and adopt the thoughts of others when appropriate. But then, I would say, self-reliance is not the correct term to use. Self-reliance communicates that your philosophy has dreamt of all things on heaven and earth, so thus anybody else’s opinion holds a lower rank, worthy of “only an extemporaneous half possession.” We see the true pernicious value of such an idea in contemporary culture when we have uneducated voices claiming more authority than scientists on matters such as climate control and vaccinations.
True damage has come from people attempting to turn themselves into intellectual islands, and I believe that one source of such ignorance is America’s individualistic convictions, inspired in part by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As I have implied earlier, I don’t believe that Emerson would have been an advocate of the culture he inspired. But I believe that the imprecision in his language resulted in the justification of personal ignorance in contemporary society. However, I have faith that eliminating the demagogic contradictions and emphasizing the inspirational insights can distill Emerson’s message. For now, I’ll give a quick example to clarify a key concept of Emersonian thought.
Sometime last summer, I was on a flight to Puerto Rico. I had never been to Puerto Rico before, so its airport was a mystery. There were no signs pointing to where the baggage claim was, but I saw all of the other passengers on the plane walking in a certain direction.
In my position, what would be the most reasonable action to take? Given my ignorance of the terminals of Puerto Rican airports, I thought it would be most reasonable to conform. So I followed the other passengers on the plane, and alas, I was led to the baggage claim.
Analogously, I believe that if one isn’t sufficiently educated in a certain matter, the most reasonable position to take is conformity. Now, this is certainly not the preferred position to take; in an ideal world, we all have PhD’s in all subjects ranging from environmental science to the locations of Puerto Rican baggage claims. But this is not the reality.
Therefore, I believe that if one finds a subject worth taking a position on, it is one’s duty to sufficiently educate oneself in that subject. To summarize in more colloquial terms, “Don’t talk about things you know nothing about!”