Self Reliance

Emerson can lead to naval-gazing and even solipsism. Googling one of his aphorisms, I find powerpoints from assertiveness training and slick empowerment seminars. Sure, that is true; as I’ve gotten older I sometimes have less patience with that cheerful old group. Still, reviewing Robert Richardson’s Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, I was struck by his summary of the ideas Thoreau found so congenial in Emerson. And it reminded me that felicity may be the most reliable and most important consequence of a restrained but dominant individualism (and its byproducts) – and the first victim of policies now being contested:

The danger in setting society at a higher value than the individual, the trouble with encouraging people to identify themselves primarily with some group, was that it then became easy to transfer the blame for one’s own shortcomings to that group. If one looked to society for one’s identity and one’s satisfactions, then surely society should be held accountable for one’s dissatisfactions, lack of identity, alienation. Emerson had already set himself against this view, and Thoreau was now thinking along the same line. (34)

7 thoughts on “Self Reliance”

  1. The idea presented here is a critical element in any discussion of the relative merits of the individual vs the collective.

    One of the most fundamental assumptions of the collectivist position is that there is something dangerous about individuals who are allowed a wide latitude for personal beliefs and activities. In the current millieu, the emphasis is on commercial activities, at least in the west, but in past eras many types of individuality were feared and punished, including religious unorthodoxy, social agitation, or violation of any number of cultural norms.

    The asian adage, from China or Japan, is “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” The various class and caste systems around the world served for centuries as mechanisms to keep people in their places precisely because no movement was normally allowed from one group identity to another. Where you were born was where you stayed, both figuratively and literally.

    The revolutionary impact of the ideas of individualism contained in the political and social theories of the Enlightenment, and the subsequent foundational ideas of our society, is still reverberating through the culture’s of the world even now, over two centuries after their promulgation.

    There have been repeated attempts by the various advocates of the collective viewpoint to formulate a response with which to overpower the case for the individual. Indeed, the entire 20th century was a series of laboratory experiments, using real populations as guinea pigs, for the various -isms which were supposed to supercede, and replace, the wave of liberality that had threatened, and in some cases overthrown, the stratified group identities of traditional society.

    One by one, these collectivist experiments collapsed, or were destroyed, but not before they had fashioned a series of deadly plagues upon their populations of biblical proportions.

    Indeed, even the destruction of Sodom and Gamorrah, or Noah’s fabled flood, could not match the gruesome deadliness of the ovens, or gulags, or famines, or the recurrent purges with which these nightmares slaughtered their own unfortunate peoples.

    The current challenges to the idea of the free individual living in a free society are very real and very determined. The advocates of a theocratic form of despotism are resurgent in large parts of the world, as are the apostles of the corporate state in all its many variations.

    Often they find themselves in alliance against their only true enemy—the concept of individual autonomy and the rights of the free and independent mind.

    This is an ancient conflict, and it grinds on in deadly earnest behind all the gory headlines about IEDs in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the fledgling protest movements in Iran, the social turmoil in this or that country in Europe or Asia, the Tea Party activism in the US, and every gruesome story about the latest calamity in some African nation beset by dictators and trubal conflicts.

    Individualism denies power and influence to those whose primary purpose in life is to control others by any means possible, especially political or sectarian violence. It is hardly surprising, then, that the idea of wide-ranging liberty for individuals, and strict limitations on the power of political entities to infringe on those liberties, are viewed with alarm and hatred by those whose entire focus is the advancement of their own power.

    I fear, not that collectivism will triumph, but that, once again, free peoples will be forced to take the kind of cataclysmic action that was required over the last hundred years to defeat the aggressiveness of the advocates of the collective. While necessary, these terrible conflicts are a waste of the blood and treasure of free people, who would much rather expend their energies in productive efforts rather than destructive ones.

    Even so, it is well to remember that resistence is not futile, it is required.

  2. Marx did not believe the Russians were ready for Marxism. He had the Germans in mind when he wrote Das Kapital.

    The communitarians, like Hillary and Obama, have chosen poorly for their experiment with a corporate state. Americans are genetically selected for individualism. The communitarians stayed behind when our ancestors left for the New World.

    That thought is almost my only source of consolation sometimes lately.

  3. While I can understand pessimism given todays constant barrage of bad news, I cannot share it.

    On a scale of 1 to 10 for difficult and dangerous times, the 30’s and 40’s might rate 9.5, and the decade of 1969 to 1979 an 8, but this current storm is around 6.5 to 7 at most.

    If it wasn’t for the vast political mismanagement of the nation’s economy and finances, and the world wide effects of that malpractice, the current regime would only rate a 5, mostly for incompetence.

    Carter’s incompetence was much more dangerous because of the resurgent soviet union, which multiplied the problem with Iran et al. That level of global malevolence has dissolved, and none of our current enemies, even as nasty and belligerent as some of them are, rise to such a total danger to our entire way of life.

    The collapse of marxism was a triumph of humanity over inhumanity on a scale rarely matched in history. The most dangerous wounds we have suffered in the current period are self-inflicted, and I will leave it to the good sense and feistiness of the American people to treat some of those injuries during the next few elections.

  4. “….was that it then became easy to transfer the blame for one’s own shortcomings to that group.”

    Wow. Great quote and great comments.

    – Madhu

  5. Carter’s incompetence was much more dangerous because of the resurgent soviet union, which multiplied the problem with Iran et al. That level of global malevolence has dissolved, and none of our current enemies, even as nasty and belligerent as some of them are, rise to such a total danger to our entire way of life.

    I agree with you about the Soviets. However, I fear that decades of biased and inadequate education, and the capture of key institutions by the Left, have reduced westerners’ cultural self-confidence to a level below that of even the 1960s and 1970s. We (Americans, Europeans, Israelis et al) are therefore in great peril despite the weakness of our external enemies.

  6. Yes, free people are always in peril for two very basic reasons—first and foremost, the independent mind is always offensive and threatening to orthodoxies of all kinds, and there always have been, and always will be, those for whom difference of opinion is the ultimate sin.

    Secondly, and every bit as fundamental, is the fact that people who think independently and creatively are more productive, more innovative, and, eventually, more accomplished, whether measured by wealth or knowledge or on any number of other scales.

    It is no accident that one of the hallmarks of any form of despotism is the attempt to freeze everything, and prevent any unauthorized changes or movement. Even in supposedly “revolutionary” societies, once power is consolidated, everything that is not expressly ordered to occur is prohibited.

    The dirty little secret of collectivism is that it is built on envy and fear, not the compassion and humanitarianism usually cited as the motivating force behind its proponents.

    Our current adversaries are weaker, and so are we in many respects, but the simple fact remains that it is only our own forebearence that allows them to exist at all. If the day ever comes that the threat to our society is perceived to be serious and imminent at the level of our adversaries in WW2, that ferocity will rise to the surface again, and then god help anyone we decide is our enemy.

    The greatest mistake our enemies have made in the past, and our current enemies also make today, is to underestimate our capacity for destruction, if aroused.

    Yamamoto knew, and the sooner the mullahs and various “general secretaries” around the world wake up to that reality, the better off all of us will be.

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