Ralph Waldo Emerson Would Probably Call You a Pussy

Logic leads to advancements, which in turn dictate logic. Why call someone when you can Facebook them? Why scan the street for an address when you can check the location on your iPhone? You could pick up a book on a subject of interest, but instead you’ll search for a few sufficient snippets online. Could you plan a trip without Orbitz or Kayak or Google Maps?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance” in 1841, praising the strength of the individual, the value of unadulterated opinion, and revealing the folly of blind following. In it Emerson provides a poignant vision of technology’s subtle and subversive shifting of priorities and perceptions. More than a century and a half later it is still a vital reminder that whatever our tools and acquired facilities, we must rely, ultimately, on ourselves.

This passage may as well have been written today, about the Internet and cell phones. The message hasn’t lost a bit of relevance — OK, maybe a bit; Kiwis are, today, largely clothed, I reckon:

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given something is taken. Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts. What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch, a pencil and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength. If the traveller tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad-axe and in a day or two the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow shall send the white to his grave.

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber whether we have not lost by refinements some energy, by a Christianity, entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue.

We kneel at the altar of information on atrophied legs. Occasionally it would behoove us to get up and walk around.

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6 responses to “Ralph Waldo Emerson Would Probably Call You a Pussy

  1. Except that we live longer, healthier, easier lives that those New Zealanders. People moved to farms to avoid the uncertainty of hunting. They moved to factories to avoid the backbreaking nonstop work of farming. They moved to office to avoid the monotony and mindlessness of factory work.

    Emerson was extolling the virtues of a life he never led but rather actively avoided. How nice that he was able to spend his life writing rather than dying, 25 years old around a flock of sheep on some barren mountainside.

    • The Unhappy Mediator

      Yet, Palvar, nowhere in Self-Reliance did Emerson exclaim “Jump from your coaches, throw down your timepieces, return to the land!” Rather, he underscored that no matter how time and technology change the societal landscape, the one thing that remains constant — and the one thing to which we must each remain principally devoted — is the self, our selves. When we surrender our knowledge to outside sources, our perceptions to the eyes of some authority, our actions to the rule of commonality, we risk losing touch with our innate abilities and rendering ourselves wholly dependent on forces beyond our control. Further, we bestow upon those forces — be they religious, be they downloadable — a degree of power over our lives that only we, as individuals and drivers of our own fates, should to have. Or, to put it non-poetically, if you can’t remember how you got something done before there was an app for that, you’re weaker than you used to be.

  2. However, by raising the “noble savage” up as some perfect state, Emerson discounts the benefits that he himself has access to. We have always been completely dependent on forces beyond our control – the New Zealander no less so than the American. He is writing at a time when the sum of human knowledge was growing at a tremendous rate, but with the amount of time given to an aristocrat, seemed to be comprehensible by one person. How is this applicable today? How can one attempt to become an expert in one’s chosen field while evaluating their governments latest longer-than-the-bible bill and what new medical advancements of which one can avail themselves?

    How can one not surrender some decisions to the influence of others? Turned on its head, isn’t surrendering ones decision-making to others precisely the basis for our government?

    While he didn’t say “return to the land,” I also don’t remember him saying “Hank, I didn’t actually want someone to go live in a shack next to a pond.”

    • I don’t agree that we have always been “completely dependent” on forces beyond our control. Dependent on, sure, even sometimes enslaved by, but neither completely. There need be a distinction between existing symbiotically and relinquishing control/responsibility. By virtue of living in a collaborative society (ie not as hermits) we are beholden to third parties to enrich our understanding and experience. And I’m not vilifying that paradigm, nor do I think Emerson was. What’s problematic is the tendency to forsake our innate capabilities when presented with a “technological” alternative.

      For a concrete example, take this excerpt from above: “His note-books impair his memory.” Tell me right now, Palvar, how many phone numbers can you recall off the top of your head? If your cell died and you couldn’t get to a computer to send an email, and you had to, gulp, use a payphone, I imagine you’d feel a sense of impotence. But back in high school you knew all of your friends’ numbers by heart, didn’t you? Just sayin.

    • P.S. “Hank”? Nice. Two points for Palvar.

  3. ANNIE
    (Taking Alvy’s arm)
    It’s wonderful. I mean, you know they just watch movies all day.

    ALVY
    Yeah, and gradually you get old and die. You know it’s important to make a little effort once in a while.

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