On Emerson: can we rely on Self-Reliance?

To regular readers of this blog, my strong opinions on the support of “giving to need” (charitable giving) is no secret, and I have used numerous biblical quotations and stories to refute the position that to “give to need” is against the principles of the Science of Mind philosophy as SOME in the tradition believe. I have no beef, in a free country, with any philosophy that makes some claim, but; I do take issue with any philosophy that claims a foundation based on the teachings of Jesus who then also claims that giving to those in need is anathema to their philosophy. You cannot have your cake and eat it too and I have written a number of blogs documenting why folks need to put down their forks in this regard (Jesus the Great Example, Teaching People to Fish, and The Bible on Giving are 3 of these). Of late, I have shifted my attention from the biblical to another of the foundational writings of religious science: the essays and writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Traditional religious science counts among its foundational roots the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson).

For more than 3 years I’ve been participating in the studies prescribed for preparation to sit for licensure as a Spiritual Practitioner with the Centers for Spiritual Living organization. Coming from a traditional academic environment, both as a doctoral student and faculty member, I found the basic class structure to be refreshing in its ease of access for all learners, regardless of academic background or ability, even while noticing a lack of rigorous review of authors’ positions and long-held assumptions. In my experience, critical examination of long-touted “truths” was not built into the experience that I have had thus far (disclaimer: a more critical perspective may exist in other Practitioner classes sponsored at different Centers around the country – this blog references the experience I had at a single Center).

As happens when we are first introduced to something new and interesting, I was sufficiently enamored so to excuse the lack of critical examination, but as I went further and further into understanding the foundations for the organization, I began to seek out readings on some of these foundations on my own and outside of the sanctioned “curriculum”. Most recently I have been particularly interested in what was left out of the course on Emerson in the CSL curriculum (Emerson’s Essays) vis-à-vis his predominantly Anglo-Saxon-oriented views in the earlier years (1840’s and before), his belief about the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and his initial reticence on interfering with the institution of slavery to the point of being critical of politically active abolitionists.  While Emerson’s views evolved over time, students are left to believe that his initial viewpoints, espoused in early essays like Self-Reliance, are not only exemplars of his genius but proof positive of the basis for some less-than-ideal (my opinion) positions for spiritual practice.

In his paper on Emerson (“THE LIMITS OF SELF-RELIANCE: EMERSON, SLAVERY, AND ABOLITION”), Professor James H. Read interprets Emerson’s early position on the self-reliant individual: “A self-reliant individual will find adequate external resources however challenging or primitive the social conditions; an individual lacking self-reliance will not achieve it through external assistance.” In other words, “hungry people need to figure it out for themselves – we’re not collecting food for the food bank” (my interpretation, based on what some of my early teachers in this tradition believed and practiced – that you “treat” (pray) for hungry people but never give them food).

Culling content from published essays of the time as well as Emerson’s own journals, historians and literary scholars have documented Emerson’s early belief that if the slaves truly wanted to be free, they would free themselves, first in their minds (“catching the strain”), and then their chains would, by rights of natural law, fall from them (That the slave who caught the strain, Should throb until he snapped his chain). This fascinates me from several angles, not the least of which being that in your most rigorous academic (graduate) classrooms today, Emerson’s initial viewpoint on how to end slavery would be soundly denounced as an artifact of “White privilege“. In defense of Emerson, this Yankee/white/male-centric view would shift (somewhat) over time and through his affiliation with abolitionists – remarkably John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame – as well as his growing knowledge of the realities of slavery in the United States.

Again referencing Professor Read’s paper, we are reminded that many Emerson scholars throughout the years have called out Emerson’s positions as Anglo-centric, citing “…an affinity between Emerson‟s idea of self-reliance and the conditions of a democratic society. Emerson clearly assumes a society of free, equal, and mobile individuals …”  Continuing the reference to Professor Read’s essay, the 1840’s represented freedom, equality and mobility for white, Protestant males almost exclusively; rendering his lofty proclamations of self determination questionable at best, if not elitist.

As most truly introspective and thinking intellectuals eventually do, Emerson’s positions shifted as his life experience honed his positions on various topics. To teach Emerson without acknowledging the vast critical scholarship on his early perspectives, as well as examining the relevance of such a perspective outside of a privileged lens is a travesty. Scholars at any level who wish to lean on the writings of Emerson must (MUST!) understand his trajectory in its historical context – especially scholars who wish to embark upon a spiritual journey, and hope to work with people experiencing some of life’s most challenging paths. It’s easy to lean on the simplistic lesson of Self-Reliance: basically interpreted as “it’s all on you“, whereas a more longitudinal review of Emerson’s life will serve to soften this perspective and acknowledge that some things are bigger than our individual ability to transcend them. As Whicher notes in his book, Freedom and Fate, “underlying all is the ‘power of Fate’…He [Emerson] now accepts the plain fact that most souls belong to the world of fate,…

In overlooking the declension narratives of Emerson – whether by chance or by choice – teachers allow non-academically-oriented spiritual students (i.e. ones who won’t go digging for more complete information than what the teachers present) to believe that Emerson’s early writings represent unaltered Truth and a guidepost to life, when in fact his later experiences call into question much of what is studied and held aloft from his early (and most revered vis-a-vis spiritual studies) essays.

If those of us pursuing a more spiritual answer to life’s challenges cannot see both the divine potential as well as the human limitations in the circumstances of those we hope to serve, we are no good to anyone and may be destined to become the declension narratives of a spiritual path that could-have-been, but never came to pass.

I don’t plan to limit myself to this path; and I hope that I’m not alone.

Comments, critique and questions are encouraged.


  • Emerson, R. (1988). Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson: First and second series complete in one volume. New York: Perennial Library.
  • Lopez, M. (1996). Emerson and power: Creative antagonism in the nineteenth century. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.
  • Myerson, J., Mott, W., & Burkholder, R. (1997). Emerson’s Fate. In Emersonian circles essays in honor of Joel Myerson. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press.
  • Packer, B. (1982). Emerson’s fall: A new interpretation of the major essays. New York: Continuum
  • Read, J. (Presenter) (2009, September 3). The Limits of Self-Reliance: Emerson, Slavery, and Abolition. Annual Meeting . Lecture conducted from American Political Science Association, Toronto, Ontario.
  • Rusk, R. (1949). The life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.
  • Whicher, S. (1971). Freedom and fate; an inner life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (2d ed.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

5 thoughts on “On Emerson: can we rely on Self-Reliance?

  1. I’m glad you found my essay “The Limits of Self-Reliance: Emerson, Slavery, and Abolition” fruitful for your own reflections. If you’re interested, this has been published as a chapter in an edited volume, “A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson”, University Press of Kentucky (2011). There are a number of other essays on Emerson by other scholars that you might also find interesting.

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