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Self-Reliance And Individualism

In recent decades of Emerson and Thoreau scholarship, there have been primarily two ways of situating the political orientation of their and especially Emerson’s writing: the first, and most widely held, proclaims Emerson’s status as an architect of democratic individualism. Generally supported by readings of “Circles,” “New England Reformers,” and “Self-Reliance,” scholars such as Richard Poirier, Sacvan Bercovitch, Stanley Cavell, and George Kateb have argued that Emerson's writing defines American democratic individuality as an endless process of personal renovation. It should not surprise anyone familiar with the subject that the term “individualism” has been used in a variety of ways, none of them necessarily in accord with the others. Common usage -at least in the United States - has tended to make “individualism” a term with very positive connotations, so positive in fact that one might easily find it among the common person's list of those things that can make us great. Indeed, that great common man, Ralph Waldo Emerson, remarked in 1844 that “the Union must be ideal in actual individualism.”

Although transcendentalism was never a rigorously systematic philosophy, it had some basic tenets that were generally shared by its adherents. The beliefs that God is immanent in man and nature and that individual intuition is the highest source of knowledge led to an optimistic emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, and rejection of traditional authority. The ideas of transcendentalism were most eloquently expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in such essays as “Nature” (1836), “Self-Reliance,” and “The Over Soul” (both 1841), and by Henry David Thoreau in his book “Walden” ( 1854).

Republican oratory provides a central means of personal and cultural renewal in Emerson’s “Circles,” the essay generally thought to mark a transition between the optimism of Nature and the melancholy of “Experience,” where Emerson confronts the fleeting duration of life and thought. Here is an extract from “Experience” itself:

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“The simplest things are always better than curiosities. The most imposing

part of this Harrison celebration of the Fourth of July in Concord as in

Baltimore was this ball, 12 or 13 feet in diameter which as it mounts the

little heights & descends the little slopes of the road draws all eyes with

a certain sublime movement especially as the imagination is incessantly

addressed with its political significancy. So the Log Cabin is a lucky


Part of the “political significancy”of the ball’s up-and-down movement over the hilly terrain refers to the see-saw origins of the Log Cabin slogan. (Thoreau and Emerson’s political campaign) The campaign’s “lucky watchword” derived from the Whigs’ appropriation of an insult: a Democratic newspaper editor once claimed that the Whig candidate Henry Harrison would be happier drinking cider in a log cabin than working in the White House.

From where I stand, I tend to think that there are many writers and critics who regard what they call individualist liberalism and self-reliance as the root of many of the evils of the modern world, and the emphasis of their attack is on the individualist half of the term. Those who take this line often call themselves communitarians. In America the debate is confused because almost everyone on the left and centre now adopts communitarian rhetoric. Having accepted much of the economic counter-revolution of the past decade and a half, the main issue on which those with democratic standpoint are opposed to those with republican views calling them individualists. This is based on a false chain of reasoning which identifies individualism with self-interest and self-interest with selfishness. The last is a howler, as can be testified by anyone who has laboured for a charity, a good cause or any of the arts or religion, or merely to improve the lot of his or her own family and intimates.

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