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Waldo Was Wrong

Self-Conceit, not Self-Reliance.

by Barnabas
May 28, 2003

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Waldo Was Wrong_Barnabas-Self-Conceit, not Self-Reliance. The good news today, for those who hear it as such, is that this week (May 25) marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson. As far as I am concerned, the bad news is that so many people care about this anniversary.

I discovered it by accident. After the hourly news on public radio this morning (Monday the 26th), the host segued immediately into a conversation about Emerson, most particularly his essay “Self-Reliance,” a staple of high school and college literature courses. I have had it my library at least since college days but, to quote the Widow Paroo in The Music Man, “Excuse me for living, but I never read it.” Or, if I did, it made a zero impression on me — read as an assignment, perhaps, in the drowsy condition in which I did so much of my college reading.

Well, I’ve read it now, just a few minutes ago, and it definitely did not make my day. I am hard put to comment without resorting to pejorative adjectives. My most charitable hope is that Emerson was writing a parody and was too embarrassed to say so when he was taken seriously. Has anybody ever checked that out? He was just kidding, and his readers didn’t get it?

The essay is just under 3500 words. In it Emerson assumes that what he says is self-evident, though most of it flies in the face of the moral and intellectual consensus of a millennium of western civilization — which may have been his rather sophomoric intention. Here are a few examples, about ten percent of the essay.

“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 is given to him to till.” Sweeping generalization, pious wish, hypothesis contrary to fact, the ethics of the smug, who believe they have what they have because they earned it. I will resist quoting the Bible in refutation; history and experience refute the ethics of the smug every day.

“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." It sounds to me more like the description of a tiresome bore.

“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.” Such boys exist. I was a mouthy kid, but I remember myself in this role as an obnoxious twerp, not as an ideal to be emulated. (I’m also wondering why in the world high school teachers put this sentence in the hands of teen-age boys, and equally wondering what the girls in the class thought of it.) In Emerson’s time, I suspect any teen-age boy addressed him as “Sir.”

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” How in the world does any one know that? What about the Divine Providence he speaks of elsewhere in the essay?

“On my saying, ‘What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?’ my friend suggested,-- ‘But these impulses may be from below, not from above.’ I replied, ‘They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.’ No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it." There goes ethics.

“. . . do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, 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 do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.” There go the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount. Do you suppose Dickens read this essay before he created the character of Ebenezer Scrooge?

“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.” Waldo, you are in no danger of being misunderstood. These men were because what they said was either measurably true in an objective sense, or selfless in its effect. You, however, are simply stating your opinions on no authority but your own—some of them in direct contradiction of these men. When measured against Socrates, Jesus, and Luther, you haven’t got a chance.

You’re good at one-liners, though. The Dictionary of Quotations would be a lot shorter without you.

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