Self-Reliance: A Syllabus (Essay)

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Goethe once wrote, not entirely in jest: “Know thyself? If I truly knew myself, I should run screaming in the opposite direction.” No doubt someone equally eminent has lifted a similarly ironical eyebrow on the subject of self-reliance. I expect any day to come across in Franklin’s or Emerson’s journals or letters: “Self-reliance? If I had only myself to rely on, I should collapse in despair.”
Still, even if impossible of perfect attainment, self-reliance is, like self-knowledge, undoubtedly a virtue. Tom Wolfe warns, with characteristic hyperbole, that it is an endangered one: “The notion of a self … who exercises self-discipline, postpones gratification, curbs the sexual appetite, stops short of aggression and criminal behavior – a self that can become more intelligent and lift itself to the very peaks of life by its own bootstraps through study, practice, perseverance, and refusal to give up in the face of great odds – this old-fashioned notion … of success through enterprise and true grit is slipping away. … The peculiarly American faith in the power of the individual to transform himself from a helpless cipher into a giant among men … that faith is now as moribund as the god for whom Nietzsche wrote an obituary in 1882.”
As usual, Wolfe is on to something; and as usual, his acute observations are unaccompanied by astute explanations. In this case, plausibly but superficially, Wolfe blames Darwinism and neuroscience, with digs at Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. The transformation of character and selfhood that Wolfe has glimpsed is described at greater length and explained in greater depth by the late Christopher Lasch in a series of notable works of social theory and intellectual history: Haven in a Heartless World, The Culture of Narcissism, The Minimal Self, and The True and Only Heaven. It is not skepticism or scientism or any other philosophy, Lasch showed, that has made self-reliance, along with many other traditional values and virtues, obsolescent. It is the new form of life entailed by mass production. Lasch’s account is too subtle and wide-ranging to summarize here, but it is an indispensable resource for all those who sympathize with Tom Wolfe’s complaint.
Just as the decline of self-reliance illuminates the present, the progress of self-reliance illuminates the past. We can make a very broad distinction between two forms or components of self-reliance: self-restraint and self-assertion. Gradually, the preponderance has shifted from the former to the latter. The figure of self-reliance in the classical world was the Stoic; in the modern world, the entrepreneur. (In the intervening period, self-reliance was a less exemplary virtue, since pre-modern Christianity emphasized Divine Providence and man’s radical dependence on God.)
Why this evolution? Life in the Hellenistic and late Roman era was, in varying degrees for nearly everyone, harsh and insecure; and so, as Bertrand Russell observed, “its gospel” – Stoicism especially – “was one of endurance rather than hope.” Tranquility was the goal of ethics; even the hedonist Epicurus taught that the highest pleasure is the absence of pain. It followed that one should subdue appetite and impulse, forswear ambition, shun conflict, and cultivate inwardness.
In republican Rome, ambition was still common, though success was thought to depend on the strictest self-denial. Plutarch, in Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, praises Cato the Elder’s “general temperance and self-control, for which he deserved the highest admiration.” Numa Pompilius was “endowed with a soul finely tempered by nature, which he subdued still further by discipline … believing true virtue to consist in the subjugation of the passions through reason.” Both, of course, “banished all luxury and softness from their homes.”
By the time of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), thoughtful men were weary of the tableau of vanity, cruelty, folly, and intrigue too often presented by civilized life. Marcus was a diligent and conscientious ruler and a brave soldier, but he was also oppressed by a melancholy sense of the futility of most worldly effort. In his Meditations – a diary or journal composed in the intervals of an exceptionally (even for a Roman emperor) busy life – Marcus continually urges himself inward. Our proper goal is “to live in peace, immune to all compulsion.” “Things have no hold on the soul.” “Pain affects the body … but the soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them.” “If you should come across anything better than justice, honesty, self-control, courage – than a mind able to act rationally and satisfied to accept what it cannot control – then by all means embrace it. But if not, if you find nothing more valuable than your indwelling spirit, then rely on that and care for nothing else.” The pathos of the world’s most powerful man gently, humbly, sternly, patiently reminding himself that only goodness matters and only the logos endures – this makes Marcus perhaps the noblest Roman of them all.
Between the Stoic and the entrepreneur falls … the scientific revolution, the watershed of modernity. In Sources of the Self, his great history of modern identity, Charles Taylor locates in Descartes a “new conception of inwardness, an inwardness of self-sufficiency, of autonomous powers of ordinary reason,” which gave rise to “the growing ideal of a human agent who is able to remake himself by methodical and disciplined action … by taking an instrumental stance to his desires, inclinations, tendencies, habits of thought and feeling.” The key words here are “autonomous,” “remake,” and “instrumental,” which foreshadow a new, more confident outlook on the world. The endurance of contingency is succeeded by the hope of mastery. Humanity turns outward.
In due course, this new stance produced new men and new forms of virtue. Formerly the self-reliant man looked inside himself for strength to accept the inevitable. Now he looked inside himself for strength to shape the possible. One of these new men was our Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, who left a memorable record of self- and world-fashioning in his Autobiography. For the benefit of his children and grandchildren (like the Meditations, the Autobiography was not written for publication), Franklin recounted his “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” He made a list of thirteen virtues, from “Temperance” to “Humility,” and gave a week to each, recording his lapses in a notebook and starting over after thirteen weeks. In Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence ridiculed Franklin – not wholly without justification – as a cunning bourgeois hypocrite, chiefly interested in the appearance of virtue for business advantage. The wit and sagacity of the Autobiography greatly outweigh the occasional grain of sanctimony, however; and the book’s enormous influence in nineteenth-century America was mostly benign.
If anything equaled the Autobiography for influence, it was Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” It is almost a tapestry of familiar quotations on the subject: “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Well-worn wisdom; still, it’s a mistake to think one has ever gotten to the bottom of Emerson. Settle into a comfortable familiarity with him, and you soon find yourself uncomfortably surprised. He may sound vaporously high-minded on occasion (especially if you’re not reading carefully), but he was acidly unsentimental and determinedly uncategorizable. In “Self-Reliance” he blasts bleeding hearts on one page: “Do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.” This sounds like a nineteenth-century version of Ayn Rand. Yet a few pages later: “A [wise] man hates what he has if he sees it is accidental – came to him by inheritance or gift … then he feels that it does not belong to him, has no root in him, and merely lies there because no revolution or robber [or sensible estate tax – GS] takes it away.” Likewise, in his journals – no less valuable than his essays – Emerson bursts out alarmingly: “I hate vulnerable people.” A Social Darwinist before his time? But only a few pages away: “Our good friend [the banker] speaks of ‘the solid portion of the community,’ meaning of course the sharpers. I feel, meantime, that those who succeed in … civilized society are beasts of prey. It has always been so.”
Like Emerson, Thoreau was a theorist of nonconformism, of moral self-reliance; and he was even more of a practitioner, experimenting with a solitary life in the woods, going to jail rather than pay taxes to support a war he thought immoral, defending the race traitor John Brown. Probably everyone has read and thrilled to Walden as an adolescent (at least I hope so) and later condescended to it, along with most of his or her other youthful enthusiasms. It is well worth revisiting in one’s mellow maturity. For one thing, it takes a practiced ear to appreciate Thoreau’s prose style, in which apparent simplicity conceals art. Even more important, it takes a lot of unhappy experience before his seeming platitudes penetrate our thick heads. “Simplify, simplify” – but only very wise people know how much they can do without before wasting many years doing with. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Young people read this sentence, assent passionately, and forget; grown-ups are pierced to the quick. “If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his way lies.” More often than not, the still, small voice of our genius requires many decades to get our attention.
I mentioned the large influence of Franklin’s Autobiography. One medium of that influence was the work of perhaps the most popular nineteenth-century American novelist, Horatio Alger. Originally a clergyman, Alger began in the late 1860s to churn out a large number of structurally identical and fantastically successful rags-to-riches tales, all of them intended to “stimulate the ambition of those boys who are hampered by poverty and limited advantages, and teach them that an honorable position in life may be attained by those who are willing to work for it.
The hero of the Pluck and Luck series – arguably Alger’s chef d’oeuvre – is Harry Walton, the twelve-year old son of a struggling farmer. When the family cow dies, Harry volunteers to leave home in search of wages to help buy a new one. He sets out with little except the clothes on his back and a cherished copy of Franklin’s Autobiography, won as a school prize. Harry aims to become, like Franklin, a printer and then an editor. After suffering every imaginable misfortune and exercising every conceivable virtue, Harry succeeds, first in rescuing his family and then in rising to eminence.
I confess I rose to my own present eminence without the benefit of reading Horatio Alger and, having dwelt mainly among scoffing sophisticates, began Pluck and Luck without much enthusiasm. I was captivated. True, Harry is a perfect square, and neither he nor any other character ever says or does anything less than wholly predictable. Nor is there a hint of lyricism or elegance or symbolic resonance in the prose, though there are flickers of simple, good-natured wit. But there turns out to be a primal pleasure in seeing virtue reliably rewarded and much comfort in believing, at least temporarily, in Alger’s maxim: “Where there is a will, there is always a way.” The early-American atmosphere of democratic possibility, of opportunity for all comers, is wonderfully attractive – it is Tocqueville allegorized. Cardinal Newman somewhere alludes to “the beauty of holiness”; Alger conveys the charm of wholesomeness.
It would be hard to find a more daunting example of people “hampered by poverty and limited advantages” than Southern blacks after the Civil War. A young ex-slave grasped the nettle. Booker T. Washington was eight when the war ended and went to work the following year in a West Virginia coal mine. Somewhere or other – he acknowledges in his plainspoken but moving autobiography, Up from Slavery, that he has no idea where – he conceived a passion for learning to read. Once he succeeded, there was no stopping him. Harry Walton-like, he left home at fourteen and made his way to the Hampton Normal School, eventually becoming a teacher. He went on to found the Tuskegee Institute, which flourished as his own fame grew.
Washington was adamant that economic self-help rather than political organizing was the high road to racial equality. “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.” If blacks learned to do well what the world needed done, they would prosper. Respect and social standing would inevitably follow. He made this case most forcefully in his 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address, with its famous exhortation to blacks to “cast down your bucket where you are.” The effect was electrifying: “the sensation it has caused in the press,” a Boston newspaper reported, “has never been equaled.” Northern philanthropy and Southern goodwill rained down copiously on Washington and Tuskegee. The self-help strategy later attracted criticism – sometimes quite sharp – from black political activists. Whatever one’s view of that controversy, the 1895 address (reprinted in Up from Slavery) is undeniably a rhetorical gem, a worthy predecessor to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.”
One of the Northern philanthropists who aided Washington was Andrew Carnegie, the richest man of his time and perhaps the wisest and most generous capitalist of all time. In the mid-1840s the Carnegie family arrived destitute in Pennsylvania. Twelve-year-old Andy went to work the next day as a bobbin-boy in a cotton factory. The story of his phenomenal rise is told in his Autobiography – a best-seller, like most of his other books.
The most remarkable and influential of his writings, however, are his essays and addresses, especially “The Road to Business Success,” “An Employer’s View of the Labor Question,” and “The Gospel of Wealth.” The son of a radical Scotch weaver, Carnegie infuriated his fellow tycoons by his insistence on the rights of labor and the duties of capital. If (though only if) a man was willing to help himself, he was entitled to as much help as he needed from others. “The right of the workingmen to combine and to form trade-unions is sacred,” he wrote in “An Employer’s View of the Labor Question” – though he didn’t always live up to this solemn precept. “The man who dies rich dies disgraced,” he thundered in “The Gospel of Wealth,” a fervent, eloquent sermon about the responsibilities of the privileged, which most contemporary CEOs would undoubtedly choke on. Carnegie accepted the fundamental principle of socialism (my version, anyway): that the proper reward of ability and ambition is scope to exercise them, not piles of money. From “An Employer’s View”: “I can picture in my mind [though only in the “dim and distant future”] a state of civilization in which the most talented businessmen shall find their most cherished work in carrying on immense concerns, not primarily for their own personal aggrandizement, but for the good of the masses of workers engaged therein. … When a class of such men has evolved, the problem of capital and labor will be permanently solved.” We’re still waiting.
For women, the history of self-reliance is much shorter. Most cultures have not, until recently, considered it a virtue in women. (Some, of course, still don’t.) Female dependence was biologically ordained. Now we boast (or grumble) that biology is no longer destiny. But the legacy of sexual subordination has proved just as subtle and stubborn as that of racial subordination. A line of great novels – Vanity Fair, Daniel Deronda, Portrait of a Lady, House of Mirth, Mrs. Dalloway, and many others – illustrates the hazardous progress of women toward emotional and economic self-reliance. One of the very greatest is George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways.
Oscar Wilde once confessed (or bragged; I’m not sure which) that he had put his genius into his life and only his talent into his work. Meredith – as Wilde recognized – is what Wilde might have become if he’d sublimated more. Diana Warwick, the heroine of Meredith’s novel, is witty, beautiful, vivacious, but not rich. She marries, but is too much for her pedestrian husband, who resents her independence. They separate, she moves to London, begins to write, and presides over some of the most brilliant conversation to be found in an English novel. A hero appears and falls in love with her. She is on the verge of yielding, but her romantic passion runs up against her “passion for reality.” To preserve her precarious independence, she turns him away.
This unusual denouement puzzled me until I found it explained in Vivian Gornick’s The End of the Novel of Love. Gornick traces the long arc in romantic fiction from the inevitable happy ending – the melting into romantic union, the fusion of two-in-one (which has generally meant the subsuming of one into the other) – to a recognition that the new, modern problem of autonomy vs. intimacy remains unresolved, for men as well as women. It is a superb work of literary criticism, with the added merit of perhaps leading the reader toward Gornick’s other writings, notably her memoir, Fierce Attachments, and two revelatory essays: “Living Alone” (reprinted in the Beacon Press anthology Here Lies My Heart) and the startling but inexplicably out-of-print “Against Marriage.” For anyone pondering the contemporary meanings of self-reliance, these are primary texts.
We cannot, of course, rely entirely on ourselves, even as a species. We are part of a biosphere, a vast, intricate web of life. Even corporate executives, right-wing politicians, and (some) economic libertarians acknowledge this nowadays. They have to, after fifty years of landmark books by Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, and others. The question is, what do we do with this knowledge?
The best answer I’ve come across, and the best utopian novel I’ve ever read, is Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach. Written in the hopeful early 1970s, it takes place after California, Oregon, and Washington have seceded from an increasingly polluted, anomic, unequal, and tawdry United States to form the Republic of Ecotopia. Two decades of isolation and mutual distrust ensue. A Thomas Friedman-like international correspondent is at last allowed to visit and report back to the American public. The novel consists of his dispatches and diary – a surprisingly effective narrative device.
Ecotopia takes very seriously a sentence of Barry Commoner’s (also the novel’s epigraph): “In nature, no organic substance is synthesized unless there is provision for its degradation; recycling is enforced.” Everything is recycled; what cannot be recycled, replaced, and renewed is done without. The effects of this philosophy on work, health, culture, personal relations, and every other sphere of life are radical and, as far as I can see, wholly benign. What’s more, so ingenious is Callenbach that virtually every detail is technically feasible. If we had started then, we could be there now, instead of where we are. It will make you weep.
In the future, the earth may be healthy again, and more-or-less unrestricted individual self-assertion may once again be a desirable form of self-reliance. Let’s hope so. Just now, however, a measure of collective self-restraint, at least in the rich countries, seems necessary if there is to be a tolerable future at all. For that, we’ll have to rely on one another.


Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (translated by Gregory Hays.

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”; Emerson in His Journals, edited by Joel Porte.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

Horatio Alger, Pluck and Luck

Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery; “The Atlanta Exposition Address.”

Andrew Carnegie, “The Road to Business Success”; “An Employer’s View of the Labor Question”; “The Gospel of Wealth.”

George Meredith, Diana of the Crossways.

Vivian Gornick, The End of the Novel of Love and “Against Marriage” (Village Voice, 4/13/84; out of print).

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia.


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George Scialabba