Emerson on Self-Reliance and Us?

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While we do not want to turn preps, whether for Y2K or a prudent future, into an obsession, an idol, a mania, we also need to consider what UNDERLIES prepping. I cant speak for you, but only for myself.

Though I had my share of Y2K nerves, I (and my family) always viewed Y2K preps as something both joyous and fun. We saw it (and see it) as something integrally connected to the question, what kind of life do we want to live? That question is not new for us but is one we have been working on for 26 years.

Some posters on a recent thread suggested that self-reliance is a useful way to think about what we are doing on this forum. This lead me back to a re-reading of Emersons famous essay on Self-Reliance.

This mid-19th century essay was read in school by generations of American students. Indeed, arguably, self-reliance was, at one time, considered the chief American virtue. Lets listen to Emerson:


If any man consider the present aspects of what is called by distinction society, he will see the need of these ethics. The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not `studying a profession,' for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances. Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him, -- and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history.

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.


The first thing that strikes one is how little appears to have changed (or, in a sense, gotten worse) since then. Yet, undeniably, there has been a steady erosion in the kind of qualities that Emerson describes, even since the time of my own youth.

I reject the notion that this is mere nostalgia on my part. Ask the local farmers in our area  the change in the level of skills available in the community, even among the children of farm families, is startling. One could duplicate this thought nationally in dozens of ways.

To be sure, we are adding skills as well. Our technologies are not being designed and implemented in spite of us but by us. But, at a minimum, we can say that Emersons words have hardly gone out of style! They remain profoundly pertinent in the year 2000.

More from Emerson:


The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue. For every Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?


Technology was not a new thought to Emerson anymore than to us, though its pace and effect on us has accelerated by several orders of magnitude since Emerson wrote these words.

What is especially interesting about Emersons perspective is his emphasis on the deterioration in mans bodily or sensual relation to his world. His tools distance him from the world. His concluding comment should not be taken as a comment about Christianity per se so much as a question about what we might today term, genuineness or being real.

Emersons self-reliance instructs us that we must not surrender ourselves so completely to our tools that we are enfeebled by them. This, by the way, is as true with computers for those who are intimidated by their magic as for those who cannot eat their food from a farm (too raw) until it passes through the supermarket (suitably packaged).

Y2K reminded us that we do not yet understand the scope, dimensions, interconnectedness or fragility of the systems that we have wound around ourselves like the coach Emerson describes. Unfortunately, if this coach breaks down, we might not have the skills available for raw survival, let alone prosperity.

In this sense, the stakes of self-reliance have risen considerable since Emersons day. Arguably, the promotion of old-fashioned American self-reliance, a value largely mocked today as retrograde and individualistic might better be considered a patriotic duty and not only here, but around the world.

-- BigDog (BigDog@duffer.com), January 09, 2000


Interesting post, BD. Like a lot of brilliant philosophy, Emerson and Thoreau need to be read and understood, but not necessarily followed to the "T". Personally, I think those fellows are best when read in conjunction with the Middle Path of Buddhism.

I think those who have chastised the published y2k gurus for leading them astray on the need to prep have missed the boat in a major way. Apparently, those people never understood the philosophy of self- reliance.

-- Puddintame (achillesg@hotmail.com), January 10, 2000.

Thank you, Big Dog.

-- number six (iam_not_a_number@hotmail.com), January 10, 2000.

See http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~nick/evans/emerson/self- reliancetext.html for the complete text of "Self Reliance."

Thanks BD.

Best regards

-- Joe (KEITH@neesnet.com), January 10, 2000.

Thanks BigDog! Wonderful to see those words again! In childhood they formed lasting values and impressions ...

-- Ashton and Leska in Cascadia (allaha@earthlink.net), January 11, 2000.

I have always found it interesting to consider the duality of self reliance, which I think consists of both externalities (stuff, things, possessions) and internalities (character, personality, attitude). In the long run I think the internalities are by far the most important. I have been lucky enough to be associated with some extraordinary people in my career. Two of them spent a total of nine years between them as prisoners of the Viet Cong in the delta region of South Vietnam. One was released by the VC as a propaganda move due to his deteriorating health after four years, the other escaped after five years. Back when we were listing books for the forum we considered especially useful, their story was high on my personal list (James N. Rowe, _Five Years To Freedom_, still in print in paperback). I still recommend it highly. Though both Nick (killed in the Philippines while serving as a military advisor) and Dan (died from leukemia) are gone now, their legacy of faith, tenacity and perseverance lives on in the program taught by the SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) program in the JFK Center at Ft. Bragg, and in the hearts and minds of those lucky enough to have known them.

-- Lee (lplapinXOUT@hotmail.com), January 11, 2000.

Lee -- Very wise post and trivially, yet also profoundly, true (sometimes that's just the way of things). Witness the way in which some people give up and "die" from a certain illness while others, in ways that modern medicine doesn't understand, "live".

In fact, it is far more important to determine whether (I don't say it is, but that we must determine it collectively) us undermining THAT sense of self-reliance than whether or not we have computers, cell phones and robots.

Inside-out, not outside-in, is always the way.

-- BigDog (BigDog@duffer.com), January 11, 2000.

Thanks for this post, Big Dog,

Now, it makes me want to dust off Emerson and Thoreau (especially Walden). Emerson's words, especially, "...He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun" are still totally relevant to life today, AND Y2K.

I have been racking my brain with the question, "What have I learned from Y2K?" (so far).

Part of what I've learned is the value of making preparations, mental and physical, for life in an uncertain world. Preps are not just for a one-time crisis such as Y2K, but should be a way of life. Another thing I learned was how to get back to basics, to "tell the hour by the sun" if you will. Though I use and appreciate computers, I have come to realize that they are not "reality" but merely tools.

I'm still wondering why things have gone so smoothly. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining, just curious...very curious.

I'm also curious about the lessons others may have learned.

-- No Polly (nopolly@hotmail.com), January 13, 2000.

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