“Just as men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.” – R.W. Emerson in Self-Reliance.
I’m no fan of Emerson. While I understand that Emerson and his Transcendentalists saw divinity as existing within; and that depending on an exterior authority was to him, to them, an impediment to becoming a “full man,” I find the statement and the concept of “self-reliance” rather uneasy, if not sinister. I’ll make my case.
At face value in the quote above, Emerson seems to be speaking against a reliance on religion; that prayer is supernatural and superstitious — a disease, a pathology. Beliefs or “creeds” outside of oneself is “a disease of the intellect.” That much seems apparent for the literal words. He writes that we should be self-reliant on our own terms, in our own way. It’s all subjective. It sounds radical but it is actually conservative, because it negates any other possibility.
Will. Belief. What about Love?
There is no room for anyone other than “I.” In short, Emerson’s statement is fundamentalist in tone and implication. There is Them and there is Me. There is what They believe in and there is what I believe in. There is no discussion when paths to self-reliance come into conflict. In Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” there is the undercurrent of “I am right” and the rest of You are wrong. It opens the door to opposition, to coercive persuasion, which will inevitably lead to violence. Self as Manifest Destiny.
Emerson’s appeal is that he articulates an optimistic viewpoint, a disposition, that is grand and majestic and entirely befitting a young America. There is no room for complexity and nuance. There is no middle ground. One could read Emerson’s words as a path of liberation, but the society that he creates is composed of discrete individuals who do not communicate with each other. They are isolationists. They are modern.
It may well be my own prejudice, but I think individualism is a form of self-deception and it can also be a mask for narcissism. Human beings have a need to belong and to find validation. That is not a weakness. While not all forms of external authority are to be trusted, they must be tested and found authentic, worth taking the measure against. The danger inherent in individualism and in narcissism is the absence of empathy and of compassion. Compassion and empathy are attempts at understanding another. That is not irrational. In Emerson’s portrait of the human being, the masterpiece of art is the self-reliant man. Everyone has reached perfection, but can they talk to each other? Is there a need for Art?
My sense of discomfort with Emerson is that there is no possibility for a literature of redemption, which is by definition is, outside, exterior to us. It may explain why Hawthorne, another Transcendentalist, could write about redemption, about finding oneself lost in the dark wilderness. Without redemption, without compassion, there is no society, no life-and-blood humanity.