Emerson and the Arrogance of Self-Reliance by Rocket Kirchner

Fall at Gans Creek

Image by Dandelion Salad via Flickr

by Rocket Kirchner
Writer, Dandelion Salad
Rocket Kirchner (blog)
Rocket Kirchner (youtube channel)
January 31, 2016

The entire American Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century was built on the foundation of recycled Pantheism. Here in lies its lure and its danger. It is conformity disguised as non-conformity. Assent cloaked in dissent. Ugliness parading as beauty.

The movement’s great luminaries were Alcott in Literature, Thoreau in living out civil disobedience, Putnam, Fuller, Longfellow, the list goes on, and of course, the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is truly American through and through filled with all the trappings of rugged individualism, the exaltation of nature, and lofty ideals that is so appealing to seekers everywhere.

There can be no doubt that Emerson’s Representative Men deals with heroes with a more velvet glove than Carlyle’s work on hero worship. And, Emerson’s selective essays are inspiring, lucid, and terse. Who could object to his essays on character, art, prudence, and friendship? When he says, “To be great is to be misunderstood,” it just rings true and as right as rain. So what seems to be the problem here?

Ever since high school I saw really no problem until I reread his essay on self-reliance. One line jumped out at me and chilled me to the bone. It was this one line that recently convinced me as a 61 year old man that not only can one not build their life or personal philosophy on his writings but one cannot build their life or personal philosophy on the entire movement without falling into a bottomless pit of real deception.

Why? Because this one line, this one single sentence is absolute arrogance at its most perilous, that can bring one down so low because it seeks to exalt one so high. This sentence is the smoking gun to the entire movement. It is its summation. The sentence goes thus,”Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”. Excuse me? What did he just say? Did he say what I think he said? Well, hot damn, I think he really did!

What Emerson is saying is that nothing, and he means nothing, as in no thing whatsoever is sacred at all unless is comes from your own mind. This absolute exclusivist statement means that anything that does not proceed from a human beings pea-sized brain has no intrinsic quality of the sacred. Let me catch my breath on this one. Did you just see that? Dear reader, do you have any idea how dangerous this statement really is? It is the clarion call to strut around in the arrogance of self-autonomy. It is the exaltation of the mind over love that comes from the heart.

No matter how great the integrity of the mind as a thinking machine, I ask you, can it really conjure up the sacred? Well, I guess that all depends on how one defines the word sacred now, doesn’t it? It also depends if one buys into the hypothesis of the absolute centrality of the mind as in regards to human existence. The cogency, weight, and deceptive element in this statement alone has at its root the appeal to reason, when in reality it is in fact a faith proposition. Surprised?

Emerson is asking his readers, or more like telling them, to put all their faith in the mind as the tool of integrity to bring about something not just good, or even great, but sacred. SACRED. If that is not a faith proposition then I don’t know what is. This is emblematic of the puritanical religious nature of Americans but in the guise of being secular, reasonable, confident, glossed over with a sort of beatific spirituality riding on the wings of the assumption that nature is divine not just in the woods but also in the mind.

Of course, the Transcendentalists would deny that they had anything in common with the Puritans that they deplored, stating that no Oliver Cromwell are we. However, the strain of puritanism is virtually everywhere in the good ole US of A, and it rears its ugly head in many forms. This one sentence expresses in a nutshell the rivers of ink written in abstract ideals to see what this movement really was at its core.

It was a movement that defined the sacred as coming from the brain instead of coming from the truly eternal outside of time where essence proceeds existence. There is nothing transcendental about American Transcendentalism. Nothing. For it has transcended nothing because it is stuck in the finite mind as its only source and therefore stuck in time. Both Augustine and Einstein make a very compelling case in regards to time and the nature of the mind in regards to an impossible task it takes to break out of it by mere human effort.

The movement in its totality is merely self-reliant, arrogant in its inception, arrogant in its formation, and arrogant in its solipsistic practice of exalting nature as divine. This was nothing more than mental projection. No more, no less. When they said, “We are not like you Christians who believe in your so-called transcendent Christ,” you’re damn straight they were not! Therein lies its bombastic sophistry in all its flowery speech that led to another palace of nowhere.

from the archives:

The Self As The Ultimate Source Of All Tyranny by Rocket Kirchner

Deliver Us From Virtue by Rocket Kirchner

The Crossing: The Event That Changed My Life by Rocket Kirchner

Rocket Kirchner: The Cult Of One + Thawing Out


19 thoughts on “Emerson and the Arrogance of Self-Reliance by Rocket Kirchner

  1. I’ve thought about your position, and gone back to the text. I have a couple of comments: you trash an entire literary/philosophical movement over a single line, taken out of context. That seems irresponsible to me. As for the line itself, I see it as a reaction to the religious oppressiveness of the day, in which parishioners were taught to accept the essential evilness of their own minds; the only way to salvation was falling in mindless lock step with church doctrine (Hawthorne deals with this brilliantly in “Young Goodman Brown). Emerson argued that we can each throw off the heavy cloak of constrained thought and embrace a path toward wholeness–integrity–of the mind. Within the text, “sacred” is a reference to religious dogma, and “integrity of your own mind” refers to the natural, curious, questioning and unchained state of the mind.

    • Bruce , thank you for your reply . The deception of the movement lies in the deception of so called free thinking . Yes , it is a reaction to the times . But reactionarys are not transcendent . They are too busy reacting instead of transcending .

      They think that they think freely , but there are a whole set of assumptions underlying their paradigm . The assumption at root of Protagoras and the Sophists which is ” Man is the measure of all things ” .

      Emerson’s one line as I said is emblematic of the movement .

      The Free Thinking movement has reared its head off and on thru history .

      The Shaw- Chesterton debates are very illuminating in this regard .

      Shaw thought that man’s thoughts were supreme and unlimited . Chesterton retort was ” The freedom of Limitation ” that Stravinsky used in his book ” Poetics of Music ” .

      The paradox is that thru accepting the freedom of limitation of thought that thought itself is not sacred , one truly transcends to the sacred .

  2. Pingback: America’s “In God We Trust” is a Deadbeat Dad by Rocket Kirchner | Dandelion Salad

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  4. From Todd on Facebook:

    “Usually I find Dandelion Salad excellent, and far, far above the norm; but on some things I have to disagree. What to me is an excessively harsh, pejorative, cynical and dismissive attitude to Bernie Sanders, is one point of disagreement, and I see such views of Bernie on DS frequently – I realize, he is not the messiah, but he is the best hope for the US at this time, barring revolution, which I do not believe the American people are ready for. The second point on which I disagree, and the only second that I’ve seen so far, is the equally harsh, pejorative, cynical, dismissive, and I would say, deeply misguided trashing of Emerson and what has been called the American Transcendentalist movement. I won’t bother to argue my point here, but will simply say, too much and too dark a meaning has been read into it, and I think the writer, while entitled to his opinion, of course, is simply wrong. Sorry, but I just had to weigh in here, at least in brief. Otherwise, many kudos and many thanks to an excellent team of writers and staff, and wonderfully thoughtful and informative commentary on a daily basis, that leaves all but a rare few far behind. And yes, to be great means to be misunderstood. Emerson, Thoreau and kin are no exception.”

    “I was going to say, but withheld my comment, that an assault on Emerson and Thoreau makes me, momentarily, feel like drawing my broadsword, and defending with a passion my kindred. But considering that Chomsky, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and all of my great heroes, even the Dalai Lama, have encountered fierce opposition, violent opposition, bashing, trashing and misunderstanding, again and again, many, many times, I am willing to let it go.”

    • Todd, I have studied the Transcendentalists for 45 years . My conclusions have not come lightly .

      Draw your sword and give me your best defense of them . As Mill said “It is only through the collision of ideas that truth comes forth “.

  5. Rocket I’m going to quibble here, not because I’m an Emerson fan, but to take to task the precise language he employs: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind…” Now, he doesn’t say “…is at last sacred but your own mind…” he says “…but the integrity of your own mind…” So I would have to question exactly what he actually meant by “integrity.”

    If ~ & only if ~ he was referring to what, in our present era, the artist/biophysicist Mae-Wan Ho has described as “quantum coherence,” then he may indeed have been swimming with the deep current.

    That said, I resonate with your instinctive cringe in ample measure. I can’t help but wonder what it really meant for Emerson and other “like minded” (arguably) sanctimonious types, to indwell a place wherein the true indigenous relationship had been desecrated. I mean you simply cannot restore that sacrilegious absence with any amount of sophist self-deception.

    By the way, nice short film.

    • David , fair enough . He does not define integrity or sacred .

      He assumes the centrality of mind to intrinsic quality of human existence .

      I am in dissent against that assumption . Since he has no proof it is a faith proposition .

      However , he won’t own up to it being a faith proposition . That is the Hubris . He is treating his view as if it is absolute .

  6. From Facebook #3:

    “I’ve read “Self Reliance” and it seems to speak in half-truths. It does not speak of the outlying support systems that must be acknowledged. It was the supposed doctrine of the hypocritical intentional community I lived in long ago. I also remember seeing portraits of Emerson, Whitman on the walls of the UU chuch in LA when I was a young kid.”

    • That is its problem –it is a half truth and a half truth is a lie. What is needed is the whole truth and nothing but the truth . these writings are not honest inquiry. honest inquiry is valid . they are creeds . they are dogmatic pronouncements.

      I choose dissent against them .

  7. From Facebook #2:

    “Excellent! The educated class and their illusions of self-sufficient, independent loners. This is prime capitalist indoctrination which the educated class espouse in order to maintain divisions and distractions among the working class. Excellent insightful essay.”

  8. Im do not understand the writing of the meaning here? I have known or heard the idea that if the mind I take it to mean as in a body that is biologically alive? that the perceptions of the Universe exist as within the mind and I think it means on death of ones body the Universe no longer exists? what I want to know from DS writers is the meaning semantic as a trick of language or is the Universe no longer in existence?
    I am drawn to the idea that the experimenter cannot be outside the experiment but becomes part of it? if we look at say Pavlov’s dog experiment it is obvious the set up of this laboratory condition is Pavlov being all part of the conditions of the set up.
    The paradox all the same to me is if you have a man or women having a great weight of knowledge their weight or mass is not heavier as far as I know, unless their evidence if small particle weight beyond out ability to weigh?

    • Don , if a tree falls In the forest does anybody hear ? What my article here is seeking not to answer that question of what in philosophy is called ”Qualia” which came from the Eccles /Crick mind body debate over where does the self reside as documented by the work of John Searle. The jury is still out on that one .

      what this article is seeking to do is to point out that Emerson’s grand assumption is nothing more than the echoing of Protagoras Greek Maxim ”Man is the measure of all things” , with the centrality of the mind itself ONLY able to project that which is sacred. This I view as not just un provable and a typical faith proposition but actual Hubris .

      I have no problem with faith propositions , for I myself embrace one . my problem is with trying to make it sound so reasonable. All faith propositions are credo qua absurdum . Why not just own up to it ? Because Emerson and the whole Transcendental movement are basically brilliant snobs condescending to their readers as sophisticates when In reality they are nothing more than the synthesis of Old Puritans and New Agers.

  9. Nope. might as well give up on Pelonius’ sage advice to his son. I guess a tight read and an arbitrary definition of SACRED allowed today’s essay but I’ll remain giving Emerson a lot more latitude than that.

    • Brian , I did not define the word sacred , but Emerson did . To this I cast doubt because of the limits of pure reason in the Kantian sense. And also because he is asking us to take him on faith which I don’t .

      If That foundation is sand , then it sure illuminates the whole of the movements paradigm . Thanks for the comment .

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