Self-Reliance: What It Means to Be American (July 4, 2005)
What is visible on July 4th is the overwhelming consumerism of a three-day weekend holiday: the glossy sales campaigns, the overdulgences of the table, and the obligatory displays of fireworks. But beneath this celebratory surface run questions about American identity and the state of grace of the American soul.
There is a darkness in that soul, the peculiar darkness of greed, complacency and hubris. Individualism, it seems, means not the making of one's own way but the demanding of sacrifices by others to maintain one's own lifestyle: the sacrifices of those volunteers in uniform, the sacrifices laid on the next generations to pay our lavish medical and retirement benefits, and the sacrificing of the very Earth itself to supply us with cheap energy, hardwood furniture and all the other gimcracks which are stuffed in countless garages and storage facilities across the mighty suburbs of America.
There is another American soul, the true one; that of Emerson, Thoreau and Muir. Emerson's essay Self-Reliance speaks to a radical individualism: "Insist on yourself; never imitate." His vision has been reduced to a callow "do your own thing," but his individualism is not the type trumpeted by consumerism, of selfishness and self-absorption. It is both spiritual (Emerson was a Harvard-trained minister, after all) and a state of being. "Man is not a farmer, a professor or an engineer, but he is all." To be fluid, capable of metamorphosis, and true to oneself was not an ideal but a way of living: "We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them."
Click here for more on Emerson's view of self-reliance.
At 68 years of age, Emerson passed this understanding to a 33-year old living in Yosemite Valley, John Muir. Though Emerson's visit was brief, it clearly affected Muir for the remainder of his life. His account of their meeting can be found on Peter Y. Chou's website:
"Yes, the most of my years were spent on the wild side of the continent, invisible, in the forests and mountains. These men were the first to find me and hail me as a brother. First of all, and greatest of all, came Emerson. I was then living in Yosemite Valley as a convenient and grand vestibule of the Sierra from which I could make excursions into the adjacent mountains. I had not much money and was then running a mill that I had built to saw fallen timber for cottages.I keep a justly famous Emerson quote posted in my office:"Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string."
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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
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