How is the cultivation of self-reliance in Emerson a continuation of the Enlightenment tradition?


Ralph Waldo Emerson with his insistence on self-reliance, is probably more of an inspirational intellectual character in terms of the ideals of the Enlightenment than it is the towering giant Immanuel Kant. If anything can be considered a heritage of the Enlightenment bequeathed to us through, it is that ubiquitous individualism, ideally paired with self-reliance. Aspects of the Enlightenment also appear with Virginia Woolf’s characters of „To the Lighthouse“. In order to get a glimpse of her account of Enlightenment, we may reflect upon her characters: as respresentatives of Woolf’s view on it.

Emerson imperative „Trust Thyself“ seems to be exactly congruent with the original Kantian definition of the Enlightenment „Dare to know!“. But whereas Kant makes an appeal to overcome laziness and cowardice, Emerson points at a natural instinct for self-reliance: „Every heart vibrates to that iron string“ (2) – which is observable in children: “infancy conforms to nobody“ (3). According to traditional Enlightenment, man has to be urged to think for himself in order to attain an enlightened society, and the obstacle lies in a natural inclination of the individuals to „gladly remain immature for life“ (4). In contrast to that, Emerson discerns other reasons for why people remain immature: they encounter certain obstacles to live up to their natural tendency of being self-reliant.

He surmises the benefits the individual gains from society – an entity which „everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members“ (5)- , that is, the security provied by society as motivation why be comply with the expectations society imposes on us. Society expects conformity from the individual „for better securing of his bread to each shareholder“ (6). Thusly, it commits us. It is partly this commitment that once we act publicly in a certain way, we consider it as a pledge to act in the same way henceforth. Hence „man … is clapped into jail by his consciousness“ (7), while instead, according to Emerson, he is much better off being free at any moment „to pass again into his neutrality“ (8).

This idea is closely related to Emerson’s concept of consistency as another obstacle to self-reliance. It is rooted in the „reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have to other data for computing our orbit“ (9). That neutrality, that state of being a clean slate, being free to act in new way every moment, is an indispensable precondition for being self-reliant, for acting upon our natural genius. Emerson sees the flame of Enlightenment already burning in each individual, only stifled by the shackles we have donned, whereas traditional Enlightenment strives to implant imperatively and foster it carefully. Emerson wants to overcome the shackles in order set it free: One remedial ingredient is keeping a solitude while being in the crowd.

For the characters in Woolf’s „To the Lighthouse“, traditional Enlightenment and self-reliance is also an issue. Charles Tansley is Woolf’s synthesis of both, ending up in a nihilistic state: Enlightened as to question what he is told and self-reliant as not to believe anything he is told. Hence, he is unable to believe in his own abilities and in those of others. What remains is his faith in hard work. Charles appears as a parody, perhaps a travesty of the traditional ideas of the Enlightenment, also in its aim to advance society. Despite his highfalutin moral claims, he adds nothing constructive to the community. He puts people off and discourages them („Women can’t paint, women can’t write“ (10)), and he ends up preaching in public, hypocritically and contrary to his actions, watched by Lily as Woolf’s alter-ego: „He was denouncing something, he was condemning somebody. He was preaching brotherly love“ (11).

Mr. Ramsay, trusting only knowledge inferred from logic, strives to put decisions on the basis of the latter and rejects hopes contradicting logic as lies. Originally emanating from the Enlightenment, Mr. Ramsay’s philosophy epitomizes its development towards an extreme, with the individual winding up in a different form of dependence: Now it is logic and total rationality dictating the individual, even against a need to connect with loving people: They cannot go the lighthouse, „not with the barometer falling and the wind due west“ (12). Mr. Ramsay, albeit appearing self-reliant, is actually the opposite of that. He is steered by rationality and logic, at the sane time needy for emotional support by other people, and not even believing in himself – “he had no genius, he laid no claim on that” (13) – he surely isn’t self-reliant in Emerson’s terms.

Even though rejecting any universal truth, Emerson promotes the original ideal of Enlightenment, the autonomy of the indivdiual, with his confidence in humans natural ability to act self-reliantly, merely stifled by psychosocial mechanisms, thusly paving its way into an individualistic post-modern society in which individuals are more aware of those mechanisms. Woolf’s account of it rather appears as cautionary tales against the corruption of personal authenticity and self-reliance through a misunderstood Enlightenment as mere logic and rationality in which hope is eliminated, but also in Rousseau’s tradition of pointing out the hypocritical aspects of it.

1) 2) 3) 5) 6) 7) 8) 9) Emerson, Essays First Series, Self-Reliance

4) Kant, What is Enlightenment?

10) 11) 12) 13) Woolf, To The Lighthouse

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