The Myth of Self-Reliance

Jenny Odell in The Paris Review:

“The Over-Soul” is my favorite essay, but Emerson is better known for “Self Reliance,” that famous paean to individualism. This is the one where Emerson declares that “[w]hoso would be a man must be nonconformist,” and disdains society as “a join-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.” Again, the writing is seductive. For anyone adrift in the world, it is reassuring to hear that “[n]othing can bring you peace but yourself,” or that mental will can triumph over fate. It can really be this simple: “In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations.”

I was far from immune to this essay. I underlined “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” But the more I looked back on it, the more I began to wrestle with the essay’s blind spot. I didn’t immediately see it, because the blind spot was also my own.

…None of this is to say that “Self Reliance” isn’t useful as a model of refusal and commitment. In his own time, Emerson was an outspoken opponent of slavery, the Mexican-American War, and the removal of Native Americans from their land. In our time, we could surely use the reminders to examine our relationship with public opinion and to maintain a sense of principled intuition. The best version of Emerson’s individualism is bracing, like a splash of cold water to the face, or a friend shaking you by the shoulders in order to snap you out of a daze. But for me, as for many others, everything outside the self fades away too quickly in “Self Reliance”: all of the people and circumstances that have influenced my experience of independence, my conception of my self, and even the very terms with which I think. It hides the losses that appear as my gains. And by placing the will so high above circumstance, it projects an untruthful image of equal opportunity in which the unfortunate should have just tried harder.

More here.