CURIOSITY: The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace
more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning,
to give oneself entirely over to curiosity.



Emerson is preoccupied with what he calls “the hour of vision.” One might call this simply “inspiration” or the authority of the “creative imagination” or the “inner light” belief of Quakerism. What Emerson was trying to promote was the idea that self-reliance leads to self-realization and the transformative capacity that some few individuals experience as a guide for life.

Self-reliance is not reducible to a theology, a social theory, a form of therapy, an epistemology, an aesthetic or an educational program — but it points in all these directions.


Emerson proposes an initial state of timid, unhappy conformism. By adulthood, people are conditioned to look through other people’s eyes. In this state “one can scarcely experience oneself,” as political theorist George Kateb puts it. So our first move is to disengage from the influence of others’ opinions. Kateb calls this “negative capability.” Emerson biographer Robert Richardson calls this, “ground won back from dependency.”

The second step involves trusting instinct more and reasoned judgment less because at the level of laborious formal argument you’re liable to become mastered by forces alien to your self. Emerson writes, “I would write on the lintels of the doorpost WHIM. … I hope it is better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.”

Step three, then, becomes the activation of some kind of selection principle within the newly liberated person. Go deep  within yourself. Find what you can. Self-reliance involves not a single but a double negative: resistance to external pressure, then resistance to shallow impulse. Mental self-reliance is the model of active self-reliance.

Emerson believed that writing, listening, reading were key arenas for developing self-reliance, which could not be achieved by remaining at the level of conventional linear expression. His compressed, metaphorical prose was intended both to perform self-reliant thinking and provoke it. Exploratory, provocative writing, not cautious, measured, baby-step writing, is how a writer makes good on the self-reliance ethic.

Self-reliance never comes naturally to adults because they have been so conditioned to think nonauthentically that it feels wrenching to do otherwise. He goes on to describe self-reliance as a last resort to which a person is driven in desperation only when he or she realizes, “that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion.”

Such a wrenching change in view might come in the form of a personal disaster. “The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or a style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character.” Something in the person sees disaster as opportunity.

Self-reliance brings confidence and energy but not necessarily comfort and joy. Its music is played on an “iron string.” The imagination of selves becoming self-reliant is played out against the realization that “we remain acrostics, puzzles to ourselves.” And the price of enlightenment must sometimes be emotional isolation, making it clear to father, mother, wife, brother and friend that, “I cannot break myself any longer for you.”



UNCERTAINTY: Living with no supernatural justifications,
no complete explanations, no promise of permanent
stability, with guides of merely probable validity.