Tag Archives: self-reliance

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.