This is the first in a series of 3 Classics Club reviews coming your way in the next few weeks. I am focusing on my Classics Club list because my deadline is this coming September 1st! Wow has time flown on this list!
This first classic is a fairly well known essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson titled Self Reliance. I have read some Emerson before but mostly just excerpts from his poetry and prose (like this one). When I read Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs as part of my Newbery challenge, I became re-interested in reading more of Emerson’s work. That Newbery winner is a biography of Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame and shares how closely Emerson interacted with the Alcott family. I’m glad to have read a piece of his work in its entirety.
Overall, I was surprised to find this essay by Emerson to be fairly accessible without too much intensity. Sometimes, scholarly essays are quite dense and I have to focus hard to get anything out of them.
- This is not “light” reading. It is fairly dense and sometimes difficult to get engaged with. But I think that is a good thing. This essay helped widen my usual genres and offered a lot of neat insights that took me back to my college days of reading plenty of essay like this for classes. That’s one of the things I love most about The Classics Club–it reminds me that studying literature on a deeper level is still something that I enjoy and crave.
- This is also not an especially long piece. I read several pages a day and was able to finish in a little over a week. It’s definitely one that I needed a daily goal to get through. Not something I pick up because I’m excited to see what happens next.
According to Goodreads, “Emerson’s words are timeless. Persuasive and convincing, he challenges readers to define their own sense of accomplishment and asks them to measure themselves against their own standards, not those of society. This famous orator has utter faith in individualism and doesn’t invoke beyond what is humanly possible, he just believes deeply that each of us is capable of greatness. He asks us to define that greatness for ourselves and to be true to ourselves.
At times harsh, at times comforting, Emerson’s words guide the reader to challenge their own beliefs and sense of self.”
I find Emerson’s arguments interesting, even if I don’t fully agree with them all. I think the easiest way to respond to his essay is to share some of the main takeaways I gained from the essay and respond to them individually. Hope you can make sense of a few scattered thoughts:
- Avoid conformity and false consistency above all else. No individual should be overshadowed by society. It is the individual that counts. This seems to be the main takeaway from the essay and Emerson’s focus in much of his work. The value of the individual should never be overshadowed by society or conformity. I like that he wants people to understand their personal value and seek to form opinions and viewpoints for themselves rather than just following the crowd. I think there is a lot of value for society if we all are strong individuals with well thought out opinions that lead to valuable actions. And while conformity without understanding is certainly not valuable, I do think connection between people is very valuable–even essential. It seems that Emerson focused so much on individualism that some of that potential for connection is lost.
- Society, history and religion are all created by men but not as important as the individual man. This is an interesting idea. One of my favorite classes in my master’s program was about history and memory. We talked a lot about the ways that history are constructed by man. History is not absolute truth. Memory is different for different people and fundamentally incomplete. It was a fascinating class about to navigate history, memory, truth, and literature. I think this essay would have fit rather well in that class. Yes, I believe society and history are created by men and even religious culture is created by men. But I think we as individuals still need those institutions to some degree. Again, I find that a balance of society and individual may be the most effective way to see the world.
- Travel for the sake of travel will not bring understanding or enlightenment. This one I include because it makes me chuckle a bit. Emerson is pretty clear about his opinions of people that simple travel and never learn anything or are unchanged by experiencing new places and cultures. They don’t deserve to travel. I guess I find this a little funny because I think I have traveled just to travel in my life. Perhaps we can change that mindset even as we are standing outside the worlds biggest cathedrals or at the base of the tallest mountains. Yes, traveling without appreciating the enlightenment that can come is wasted. But I believe you can happen upon understanding even when you don’t expect it. Plus, sometimes there is more enlightenment in simply admiring an old building or a beautiful piece of art. Understanding might not be so hard to achieve after all.
- The self contains all the truth you need. You must look inward to find truth. I think this idea does not go as far as I would like. I believe faith and truth are connected. Faith helps us to find truth. As a practicing Christian, I agree that faith begins with the self. You must decide to discover truth and you must be willing to change to allow faith to grow. However, I believe that truth is not limited to the self. I believe there is truth in the world around us and most of all with God. So while looking inward is an important step, I would call it simply a first step to discovering and understanding truth.
I enjoyed the scholarly nature of this essay. It is refreshing to read something of deeper philosophy and complex ideas. I would find a discussion of this in a college setting fascinating–so much to debate and discuss. Glad to have read this piece!
What are some of the most intriguing works you’ve read for the Classics Club?
Do you prefer essays or novels to discuss things like truth, knowledge, society, & individualism?