Why be self-reliant? Emerson offers an aesthetic justification in “Behavior”: lack of self-possession is ugly, and painfully so.
Those who are not self-possessed, obtrude, and pain us. Some men appear to feel that they belong to a Pariah caste. They fear to offend, they bend and apologize, and walk through life with a timid step. (1046)
There is a tone to our actions, and two instances of what is nominally the same action may be unmistakably distinguished by their possessing distinct tones. The one acts with assurance, the other with apology, and though the act alone be of equal value in each, we are willing followers of the former, and detest the latter.
One would say, that the persuasion of their speech is not in what they say, – or that men do not convince by their argument, – but by their personality, by who they are, and what they said and did heretofore. (1048)
One means by which such a tone is generated is through manners, etiquette – I am convinced Emerson would have named this essay “Manners” had he not already published an essay by that name in Essays: Second Series. Self-reliance stands opposed to conformity, but nonconformity here does not mean reckless abandonment of etiquette, that powerful creator of forms. Forms are requisite for expression – they are constraints only when they are imposed upon the content.
An illustration of the point may be found in poetry. Paul Fussell, in his book requisite for all readers of poetry (Poetic Meter & Poetic Form), notes that what makes poems poetic is their density: that each element may be seen to contribute to the meaning, that none are tacked on or arbitrary. If a poem contains stanza divisions, those divisions must matter. If a poem has a meter, that meter must bubble up out of the poem’s content, and prove itself worthy of it. &c.
So too actions. One can not simply add form, manners, tone to action arbitrarily. Actions require density. Or, better, persons require density.
And you cannot rightly train one to an air and manner, except by making him the kind of man of whom that manner is the natural expression. Nature forever puts a premium on reality. What is done for effect, is seen to be done for effect; what is done for love, is felt to be done for love. (1047)
No more than one can write a poem in iambic pentameter whose thought does not so move, can one cultivate a person’s appearance who remains barbaric underneath. The barbarism will show through.
One of the aesthetic markers of self-reliance – I note in passing a confidence between Emerson and Nietzsche on this point – is a mistrust of too much giving grounds. One need only watch a contemporary discussion between disputants each of whom is concerned to display his rationality, his cautiousness, his consideration of all sides, his charity to opponents to be disgusted by the ugliness of a too great love of the appearance of rationality.
Emerson noted this opposition in grand style in his essay on “Self-Reliance”:
I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. (262)
It is important, however, so he reiterates here, with an interesting variation:
Self-reliance is the basis of behavior, as it is the guaranty that the powers are not squandered in too much demonstration. In this country, where school education is universal, we have a superficial culture, and a profusion of reading and writing and expression. We parade our nobilities in poems and orations, instead of working them up into happiness. (1048)
In this expression of the point, Emerson ties it to the thought that poetry might profitably disappear – not his first time having entertained such a thought. He mistrusts that poetry (and other writing) that becomes a show of nobility, often at the expense of the enacting of that nobility. Were this form of poetry to disappear, what is poetic in it would nonetheless remain: “when a man does not write his poetry, it escapes by other vents through him […] clings to his form and manners…” (1048)
This disappearance of poetry is, moreover, annexed to a consideration of happiness: there is something sickly, unhappy, about a person who sacrifices happiness to poetizing. As a person possessive of at least pretensions to such poetizing, this thought is interesting to and useful for me. Ought I not to write, in favor of other forms of expression? I do not think so, and do not believe that I am merely gratifying myself in so thinking. What this suggests to me instead is that Emerson places a priority first on happiness (by which I do not believe he means that sloppy self-content that today sometimes carries the name). Once this is secured, it may overflow into poetry.
The requirement is that poetry be a product of joy, of healthful morning hours. If such joy be its fount, it will adopt poetic bearing of its own accord, and wear it regally. If not, all the cultivation of form imposed upon it will not protect forever the impostor.
“It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery that we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.” (487) Why should it be unhappy to discover that we exist? Consider how, in “Experience”, Emerson defines ‘happiness’: “To fill the hour,—that is happiness; to fill the hour, and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.” (478) But to know that you exist, that you act, that you might have acted differently—how is this possible without leaving a “crevice”? So there is an inherent unhappiness in our awareness. Much of the Emersonian task—and the Nietzschean task to come—is to recover joy in the face of this unhappiness.
Immediately preceding Emerson’s recharacterization of the image of the Fall is a reflection on skepticism: “The new statement will comprise the skepticisms, as well as the faiths of society, and out of unbeliefs a creed shall be formed. For, skepticisms are not gratuitous or lawless, but are limitations of the affirmative statement, and the new philosophy must take them in, and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.” (487) There is a skeptical undercurrent running throughout the essay, as when, earlier, Emerson writes what I find the most wonderful sentence in perhaps his entire corpus, “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (480) Here then is a source of skepticism: for no course of action can we have absolute certainty—each is beset by some objection. Were we Cartesians about actions, refusing to act without such assurance, we would all be lumps.
And yet, and yet, does not Emerson tell us what is spiritual just a few pages earlier? Does he not say, “But the definition of spiritual should be, that which is its own evidence” (475)? Just as Descartes resolved his skepticism by an appeal to God, Emerson seems to turn to the divine—only he locates it within the self. There, in self-reliance, we find the stable ground for action, the possibility of certainty. Descartes’ solution was a cop-out; Emerson is not so sanguine. For Emerson finds, lurking beneath the spiritual, the self-evidencing, a still deeper skepticism. It is here, on this shifting ground, that he must find his affirmation, must plant his foundation.
Let us return to the Fall. “Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments.” (487) Specifically, we suspect our perception of the world: we see through lenses tinted by our values. “We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are.” (487) And then comes the crucial point: “Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects.” (487) Our evaluations are something creative: they make objects—say, a good man or an evil man—where there was none before. Here is idealism, and one can easily nod here, yes, yes, we know Emerson is an idealist—and in this fashion nod off. But Emerson is not just espousing a tired idealism. He is locating beneath it a disturbing skepticism: all our creativity in valuing, all our self-reliance, all our self-evidencing spirituality—all this may be in error.
That is why “the whole frame of things preaches indifferency.” (478) What is real, in the sense of mind-independent, does not support our values. It is Epicurean, random. What is creative and divine is something mind-dependent, something with no basis beyond ourselves. It is our “Fall” to have come to know this, to be unable to reify our values naively. The possibility of self-reliant affirmation remains, but no longer may it be done self-consciously—happily, if you will. For the crevice is always there, and skepticism leaks in, lingers at the margins. Can it be turned into an affirmation? Well, that is the question, isn’t it?