Whatever, I Do What I Want : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 009

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.


Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,— “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right.


If you are following along with this, you’ll notice that I had to break up this paragraph. Way too much for me to give it a good and honest study otherwise.

“He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.”

This was mentioned in a previous post – just because something is said to be right doesn’t make it right.

But I wanted to stress it again – no matter what others think of an idea or an action, if you think that it’s right, do it. If you think that it’s wrong, don’t do it. Dance to the music of your own Iron String.

 

“Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”

There’s a question that has to be asked of every action in life – “What would happen if everyone did this?” It bugs me that sometimes Emerson comes across as a “Whatever, I do what I want!” kind of guy.

What would happen if everyone decided to just “do what they want?” It reminds me of one of the ridiculous arguments against atheism – “If you don’t believe in God, what’s stopping you from raping and murdering and stealing whenever you want to?”

The best answer I’ve heard to that comes from the Ricky Gervaise Netflix show “Afterlife” – I do rape and murder and steal all that I want – which is zero times.

Yet people rape and murder and steal all the time, irregardless (sorry, but I like that word) of their belief in God. I think that there are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Our most basic survival instincts kick in, and at the moment of the raping and murdering and stealing, those seem more important to us that the welfare of our fellow human beings.
  2. We group ourselves into tribes, and members of the other tribe aren’t seen as human. Since we don’t see them as a part of our society, we aren’t harming ourselves by harming them.

(Of course, these aren’t my ideas, but I’ve bought into them.)

Solutions? I can only think of one. Education. Education in cosmopolitanism. Education in the fact that we are all connected, not in a woo-woo spiritual way, but in a very real, what happens to you affects me way, even if we can’t see that in the moment of acting on our most primitive urges.

(By the way, having an urge isn’t the same thing as wanting to do something. Those of us with serious, destructive addictions and/or mental health issues should understand that. Actually everyone should understand that, but I’ll save a discussion on the importance of unconditional self acceptance and compassion for ourselves and others for another time.)

For those who are unable or unwilling to control those urges – punishment isn’t the answer, but they should be removed from society in order to protect others, and be evaluated regularly to determine if reentry is safe.

This is my long winded way of saying that, while most people can get along just fine with the brand of self reliance that Emerson espouses, there are exceptions. We’ve got to find that middle way between totalitarianism and individual freedom. It’s messy, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep working toward it.

My own personal philosophy is this – if it ain’t hurting no one, and you believe it is right, go for it. Let fucking loose, and continue to live life the way that you see fit. I’m still working on it, but I think I’m making progress.

Be self reliant, consider others, and “carry [yourself] in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but [you].”

 

1 thought on “Whatever, I Do What I Want : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 009

  1. Jorah

    Or as another man put it:

    “Do What Thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
    “Love is the Law, Love under Will.”

    Reply

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