I recently read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance” and was amazed at the density of insight in this essay. It’s as fiercely individual as Ayn Rand, but focuses more on self reliance than its antithesis. You can compare some of the ideas here with those in Rand’s “For the New Intellectual“. You should really read Emerson’s whole essay, but I’ll put some gems down here. The following are some of my favorite parts of the essay:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, – that is genius.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which he is given to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

Infancy conforms to nobody; all conforms to it; so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it. So gid armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not to be put by, if it will stand by itself.

The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. How is a boy the master of society; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about the consequences, about interest; he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him, he does not court you. But the man is as it were clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affection must now enter into his account. …[The boy] would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private but necessary, would sink like darts into the ears of men and put them in fear.

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but the grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. 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. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

No law can be sacred to me but that of my own nature.

…truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, else it is none.

…do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as fo not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meetinghouses to the cain end to which many now stand alms to sots, and the thousandfold Relief Societies; – though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by-and-by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,- as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life in not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that is should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding. My life should be unique; it should be an alms, a battle, a conquest, a medicine. I ask primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man to his actions. I know that for myself it makes no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows and secondary testimony.

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinions; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is e who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible Society, vote with a great party either for Government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers,- under all these screens I have difficulty to detect to precise man you are. And of course so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your thing, and I shall know you. Do your work and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blindman’s-bluff this game of conformity . If I know your sect I anticipate your argument.

…Else if you would be a man speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again., though it contradict everything you said today. Ah, then exclaim the aged ladies, you shall be sure to be misunderstood! Misunderstood! It is a right fool’s word. Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Fear never but you shall be consistent in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of when seen at a little distance at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. This is only microscopic criticism. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.

A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him: I wish that he should wish to please me.

Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers to accomplish his thought ;- and posterity seems to follow his steps as a procession. A man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. … An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man…

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say “I think,” “I am,” but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are ; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a lead-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike. There is no time to it. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too loves with nature in the present, above time.

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