I was thinking I should do a blog post on Ralph Waldo Emerson since I studied his work so much as both an undergraduate and graduate student in American literature, not to mention my affiliation with Unitarian Universalism since 1979. “Self-Reliance” seemed like the best known essay to take another look at. At the same time, Paul Ryan was being nominated as Mitt Romney’s running mate and I was hearing a lot about Ayn Rand, who I have never read. I started wondering if there was any connection between Emerson and Rand besides being known for promoting individualism. There seems to be some discussion of whether Ayn Rand misrepresented Emerson in one reference to him (http://www.noblesoul.com/orc/essays/emerson.html) and others have compared the two (noting perhaps more differences than similarities).
Curious, I read an early example of Rand’s fiction, a dystopian novella called Anthem, which kind of reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984. Others have also compared those two writers, again seeming to find more contrasts than similarities. Both Rand and Orwell are critiquing totalitarianism, but Rand from a capitalist and Orwell from a democratic socialist stance.
In Anthem, the narrator, like all members of his collectivist society, refers to himself as “We, “the first-person “I” having been expunged from the language. When, upon escaping from this society, the narrator discovers manuscripts from an earlier age, he learns the word “I” and promptly rejects the use of “We”: “I am done with the monster of ‘We,’ the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood, and shame.” In the end, the narrator chooses “the word that is to be my beacon and my banner…The sacred word: EGO.”
This radical individualism is strangely contradicted by the narrator’s need for a lover and life partner, who is pregnant with his child. One wonders if the word “we” would apply to his family and what would happen to that unit if every member truly placed “ego” ahead of family relationships. The narrator’s vision calls for him to invite his “friends” to “follow” and join him in building a new future: “Here on this mountain, I and my sons and my chosen friends shall build our new land and our fort.” Again, one wonders how one sustains friendship if ego rules, and how successful this venture will be without some degree of cooperation and communitarianism, not to mention governance.
Perhaps Rand’s answer would be that so long as relationships, group affiliation, and communal “belonging” is chosen, then, of course, ego naturally adjusts to that choice, but if it is enforced by coercion, law, tradition, or obligation, then ego is bound to assert itself, for true freedom means that “each man will be free to exist for his own sake.”
One passage in Anthem particularly reminded me of “Self-Reliance.” The fictional narrator states:
"I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom."
"Then again, 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. …your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots, and the thousand-fold Relief Societies; though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have to manhood to withhold."
Self-reliance did not prevent Emerson from suing his first wife’s family for his inheritance and living with relatives after his resignation from the ministry and a tour of Europe, though he did go on to make his own living as a traveling lecturer and writer. Likewise, Ayn Rand, for all her anti-government views, collected Social Security and applied for Medicare.
Perhaps a more thorough study of Rand’s works would reveal more complexity, but Anthem offers a caricature of the choice between individualism and communitarianism. The latter is reduced to complete tyranny of society over the individual and the former is elevated to the absolute pursuit of individual happiness, regardless of the expense to social cohesion and the common good. One would think that a devotee of “rational egoism” would have some appreciation for a moderate middle ground, but, no, at least in Anthem, it seems to be either-or.
By comparison, ‘Self-Reliance” is a study in intricacy and nuance. For one thing, Emerson distinguishes between the social self, formed by conformity to society and consistency to the past self, and the “aboriginal Self,” which, unlike Rand’s materialistic “Ego,” is part and parcel of the Universal Spirit or “Oversoul,” a concept the atheistic Rand would not be able to countenance. Far from calling for the elevation of the material Ego, Emerson calls for the liberation of that “aboriginal” spiritual Self from the constraints of materialism and socialization. And it seems that when one is in touch with that spiritual Self, one loses all individualism and participates in a shared universal truth. Thus, whether you agree with it or not, Emerson at least has a theory that would provide the basis for communitarianism and social cohesion, a basis in human nature and shared understanding, not governmental power and social control.
In an Emersonian world, it seems, individuals would free themselves from coercion, law, tradition, and obligation, not to mention their own false selves, only to find common cause with each other in social relationships based in authenticity, integrity, mutuality, and spiritual bonds.
Neither Rand nor Emerson show evidence of having any understanding of systemic social injustices such as economic disparity, inherited wealth or poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, or, perish the thought, heterosexism. They seem to assume that all individuals function on a level playing field with equal ability and resources to assert their individuality. No doubt the message of individual empowerment is important to the economically disadvantaged and socially subordinated, but Rand fails to allow for the role that material and social inequality play in individual opportunity and achievement, and Emerson fails to recognize a relationship between material well-being and spiritual power.
Though Emerson eschewed collective action, for fear it might compromise his independence, he eventually became more active in the abolitionist movement, suggesting perhaps that he did come to realize that (1) the concept of self-reliance is pretty meaningless to a slave, and (2) in the case of such material conditions as slavery, collective social action may be necessary, not only to material but also to spiritual freedom.
Although Emerson used gendered language in describing self-reliance as “manly,” he also supported the women’s rights movement, describing it as “no whim, but an organic impulse…a right and proper inquiry…honoring to the age.” One wonders if Ayn Rand would acknowledge any debt to the collective women’s action that earned her the right to speak in public, vote, and participate in the political process, as she did when she worked on behalf of Wendell Wilkie’s presidential campaign in 1940.
Where does this leave us? It seems both Emerson and Rand’s lives and works are rife with contradictions. Sometimes they seem to be sounding a similar note, though overall their versions of individualism are quite different, Rand openly espousing individual action based on “the virtue of selfishness” and Emerson defining self-reliance as “self-trust,” more an affirmation of self-esteem and self-worth than a rationale for the active pursuit of self-interest without regard for the well-being of others.
Despite Emerson’s renunciation of the ministry, his philosophy of individualism really has a religious and moral basis, whereas Rand’s philosophy seems to be based on secular materialism and individual self-interest.
Emerson seems to be asserting the value of one's individual self-interest as at least equal to that of others, whereas Rand seems to be asserting it as superior to that of others.