Generally a reading of philosophy is very abstract. You've got a bunch of people talking about virtues and vices and right and wrong as if they were things to talk about. They aren't of course. A virtue like courage for example means nothing if it's not represented in a person. A person can think courageously. A person can act courageously. But a person can't talk about courage like he talks about,say, eating a banana. In the end courage is the property of an actor. Like banana pulp is the property of a banana. You can't talk about banana pulp without talking about banana. Similarly you can't talk about courage without talking about the person who posseses that courage.
We can easily say that Joan of Arc was brave. But we can't talk about bravery any more than we can talk about banana pulp. When you read a story that describes the valor of a David against a Goliath it teaches you something about what courage actually means. But when we have Socrates chirping about bravery,justice and what not without telling us how the hero killed the princess and rescued the dragon our brain shuts down. We don't understand anything. There is no takeaway.This is the problem with philosophy. It focuses too much definitions and too little on application. I mean just take Aristotle for example. Guy spends a great deal of time talking about ethics and politics and poetry and comes off as a very wise fellow. Which I have no doubt that he was. But then look at his star student Alexander who marches on ahead calling himself a God destroying cities and butchering people to satisfy his lust for power. All this while our master doubles down on his efforts and produces book after book on every subject imaginable : rhetoric, metaphysics and this and that. Does all of this not seem a little odd?
I say this not to critique Socrates or Aristotle. There is no doubt that the western Philosophy is shaped by them but to be frank I don't really get what they are teaching. And although every time I hear the phrase "Socratic questioning" I take my frustration out on a juicy apple it doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the significance of great thoughts of these great men. I read their books but then I put them away in a corner. I say all this only to provide a background as to my state of mind when I came upon an essay, by the great American scholar Ralph Waldo Emerson, titled Self Reliance.
Now before we begin talking about Self Reliance let me make a few more admissions. I had never read Emerson before. I was aware of this cult of "Transcendentalists" but I suspected that these folks were into some kind voodoo magic hippie healing power of nature and therefore being a man of a little (too little some would say) scientific bent of mind I kept away from him. In the first few lines Self Reliance does in fact seem like ramblings of some old man who has just lost it. Phrases like "nourishing corn", "gleam of light" and "latent conviction" did not make a favorable first impression on me and I almost gave up on it. Emerson's writing is poetic and vivid. But it's also hard to understand. It needs to be absorbed slowly. The essay demands patience but the fruit it offers really is sweet.
A large part of self reliance is about protecting one's individuality. It becomes clear from the first sentence that Emerson is a great admirer of original thinking and the emotion that such a thinking conveys regardless of the merit of the thought. Genius ,as he says, is belief in your own thought without any regard to strength of force opposed to that idea. In both actual and intellectual life all that should matter is what you must do. What people think should be of little concern.
Conformity is a draining force in life. Not only it robs you of your vitality but it also compels you to walk on a false path, one that is not true to your character. Every word that we utter must take into account the sentiments of the party to which we have committed ourselves to. We must learn to bow to names and badges. We must learn to accept the customs and traditions. We must learn to subdue and subjugate our own inner voice so that we may become a noise in the chorus.
Virtues are practiced as penances. Life is lived as an apology, a spectacle. We run from ourselves, we seek affirmation in others and we are afraid of everything that is new and spontaneous. A stoic detachment is essential for a true life. We must learn to scorn appearances. We must not seek to please. It is important to understand that the force of character is cumulative and by practice of self reliance new powers will appear that shall restore life.
A man is better than a town. The thoughts and ideas that come to us in silence are sacred and must be treasured. One must learn to keep the sweet Independence of solitude in the midst of a crowd. Babes, children and brutes understand very well the importance of self. They are unconquered and whole. Their thoughts and their actions are pure. They care not for any consequence and freely judge what crosses their paths to the best of their ability. They can't be overpowered. They refuse to bow or show deference to any authority. Such nonchalance is a healthy attitude of man. We must learn to obey our inner voice.
While on one side self reliance is freedom from all outside influence on the other hand it's a total surrender and an absolute obedience to the soul. The things we observe, the company of people we find ourselves in, and the connection of events are not chance happenings. We must not rove or complain or struggle with the external events but instead be still and accept the law of divine providence.
We must learn to live in the present and do right now. All our actions however inconsistent they may appear will be found harmonious in the end.Like the voyage of a ship, a zigzag line of tacks, when seen from a distance appears straight. We can not pre justify all our acts. We must not be a prisoner of our past. Sticking to consistency is foul. Virtue and vice are not just represented in our overt actions but betray us in every breath we take. We are our character. We can't fight it.
Intuition is our guide. We must not seek to explain our actions. There is no need to show cause for our whims. We owe, to our involuntary acts, a perfect, unquestioning faith. Honest actions are the prayers of a simple and clear mind. Perception is strong, sight is weak.
Our conformity and distrust of our private sentiment explains nothing. The actions that appeal to popular opinion are not our own and neither is our path. But we end up going where some one else takes us. We look at "our leaders" and take their word as gospel. We do not understand that they can't say one original and spontaneous word. Their acts are all predictable. Spontaneity is always private. It can't be a group activity. The law of original action by a private man is greater than the law of any committee. It's only when a person stands alone that he can be said to be strong and have a chance to prevail.
We read the books of great men. We learn their sayings but we can't understand their meaning. We can't grasp that books are but a means to an end. If what the books speak of is true we shall discover the same truth on our own when the time comes. We should not put much weight on a few verses. A couple of lines of text should not usurp what we believe to be true in our heart. The integrity of mind is sacred. Our soul has the absolution that we seek. If we are the devil's then we must live by the devil's way.
The consequence of non conformity is displeasure of the world. When we march to our own beat we can be sure to be greeted by sour faces. Resistance is to be expected. But this displeasure has no deep cause. The feelings of the masses, their goodwill and their resentment are shallow and something that must be treated as trifle, to be tossed aside like an old newspaper.
When we are doing something good, something new. When the truth is near us. It will not be anything that we are accustomed to. The experience will be novel. We will not find a precedent. There will be no footprints on that path. It'll be untrod and we must go alone.
Emerson dismisses our prayers, our regrets and even an inclination to travel about as want of self reliance. By roving about and by begging from a foreign entity we fail to communicate with our own internal ocean. Regrets are similarly useless as it impedes our useful actions. The best way to repair an evil is by sticking steadfastly to our work.
They say that to truly understand the words in a book one must have a certain amount of life experience. The emotions that words inflame must already be simmering somewhere deep inside of us. Self reliance is one of those rare essays on philosophy that speak directly to the heart. How often we've heard the variation of "Trust Thyself" from Friends, in TV shows, in pop music and even in religion. In fact so often this phrase has been flashed across us that it has stopped making any impression.
Emerson essay is however more than just the feel good "always follow your heart" advice that we are used to receiving. Where the ancient Greek philosophy becomes a burden on life that compels us to examine our every move,Emerson's poetry sets us free by reducing conduct of a good life to two simple words, Self Reliance.
Achieving the sate of self reliance is however not as easy as it seems. It requires:-
In Self reliance Emerson speaks his mind free from all pretenses. It's one thing to critique norms,standards, common views and it's quite another to confute them all together. In Emerson's world there can be no greater law than the law of nature. Everything else is irrelevant. A greater understanding of self reliance can be obtained if it's read with some of his other essays. History for example deals with the connection of events. Compensation talks about the law of "equivalent exchange" and whether it's possible for any one to cheat. Oversoul and Spiritual Laws talk about the unification of things. But Self reliance is complete in itself and possibly the most relatable of all essays because it's an idea that we've all heard and believed in, in one form or the other.
-Akshat Jiwan Sharma