Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

That section near the beginning where he talks about how people become attached to what he calls “communities of opinion.”  “This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars.  Their every truth is not quite true.  Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.  Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere.” And so it becomes apparent that conformity was a serious problem in the American character even in 1841, a supposition confirmed by de Toqueville.  Somehow the self-trust that inheres from our earliest days undergoes a serious erosion.  When society with its power of indignation against the contrary individual becomes aroused, when the unintelligible brute force of society is made to growl and mow, this force first stands defensive, and then almost always subsequently collapses.  And so, if this state of affairs disturbs us,  we are led back to the primeval source of our early penchant for self-reliance to attempt to repair its eviscerated foundations.  “The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, the essence of virtue, and the essence of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.  We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition whilst all later teachings are tuitions.  In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.”

What an indictment of the present Weltanchauung.  At about this same time, that is, 1841, Comte’s Positivism was taking its position at the forefront of the Weltanschauung of its time. (What a fertile time this was!  All the psychomachias we are dealing with today found a crossroads here!)

The place where analysis cannot go.  That place that Comte disparaged to the point of utter derision.  But we return instead again to “Self-reliance”:  “We first share the life by which things exist, and afterwards see them as appearances in nature, and forget that we have shared their cause.”  This is the position of Positivism in a nutshell.  Subjectivity is untrustworthy.   Therefore, let us abandon it entirely as anything legitimate.  Everything must be looked at from the outside.  Only the dispassionate observer is the true discoverer of truth.  Our whole system of science is founded upon this principle.  But Husserl has established that the egologic is the only legitimate starting-point.  We do not have the luxury of the God’s-eye point of view.  Or we didn’t, until now.  However, this God has much more the characteristics of the society which growls and mows than that of Jehovah the giver of the Just Law.  This God’s ways are mysterious.  Even its creators don’t really know how it works.  How does the algorithm determine which YouTube video to play next?  Only your hairdresser knows for sure.

Emerson then segues into the sublime irrational.  “And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably, cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition.  That thought, by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this.  When good is near you, when you have life in yourself,–it is not by any known or appointed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; –the way, the thought, the good shall be wholly strange and new.”


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