Ralph Waldo Emerson‟s philosophy of self-reliance is most obviously suited to a relatively peaceful, law-governed democracy characterized by free, equal, mobile individuals. Emerson consistently posited a faith in balance, the tendencies toward chaos and order, change and conservation always correcting each other. His late aesthetics reinforce this political stance as he veers in "Beauty" onto the subject of women's suffrage: “Thus the circumstances may be easily imagined, in which woman may speak, vote, argue causes, legislate, and drive a coach, and all the most naturally in the world, if only it come by degrees.
The actual American social order that gave birth to Emerson and his philosophy did approximate
that ideal for many of its white citizens. For slaves it was a different matter altogether. To what
degree Emerson‟s philosophy of self-reliance could speak to the reality of slavery, and to the
very difficult challenges of abolishing it on American soil, remained an open question.
As Emerson became progressively more committed to abolition, he sought wherever
possible to cast his opposition to slavery and his vision of its abolition in the language of selfreliance.
In some respects the application of self-reliance to slavery was straightforward: slavery
denied self-reliance; fugitive slaves displayed it, as did white citizens who refused to become
kidnappers. In other respects Emerson‟s philosophy of self-reliance encountered greater
challenges: in attempting to resolve the conflict between political engagement and political
detachment, and in his broader speculations about peoples and races.
In his late writings Emerson sought a revised, more restrained vision of self-reliance, one
that recognized the limited power of human beings confronting a difficult and sometimes violent
world. Emerson‟s call to turn fate into (limited) freedom by recognizing necessity and paying
close attention to causality as well as “the spirit of the times” contains the seed of a more
politically engaged version of self-reliance – and also one less preconditioned on a healthy
democracy than the version Emerson set forth in 1841. But this new ideal of self-reliance is
much more difficult to achieve. Emerson himself fell short of its demands in his uncertain and
inconsistent response to the sectional crisis culminating in the Civil War.
To observe that Emerson‟s philosophy of self-reliance could not fully address the
sectional crisis over slavery and abolition is not to judge that philosophy a failure, but merely to
acknowledge its limits. Nor should Emerson himself be judged harshly for failing to find a clear
path through a crisis in which nearly every American was confused and internally divided.
Emerson‟s determined efforts to do battle with slavery while remaining true to his philosophy of
self-reliance remain instructive to everyone who has ever been torn between duty and reflection;
and to anyone fortunate enough to experience an America closer to the one Emerson hoped for
than the one in which he actually lived.
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