Self-Relience

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What lies in the heart of all men? According to Ralph Waldo Emerson there is a spark of genius, a divine source of independence and power; however through experience it is plain to tell that this is not the true guide to our actions, as Emerson would claim.

Take a look at the news, or think of people you know. Think about what drives their actions. The root of an overwhelmingly large portion of human action is selfishness. Though man has the ability to reason, this ability is also paired with a strong instinct. We are not exempt from natural response, despite the place we carved out at the top of the animal kingdom.

Even those that work for the good of society, for the betterment of the lives of others, and strive for a better tomorrow often have actions shaped by instinct. Civilization is not an advance mankind created through reason and want of communication – rather it is merely an extension of the survival instinct that is present within our genome. Just as wolves or herd animals, humans realized early on that they must group together to remain competitive, and as the population increased so did the size of a tribe necessary for survival. This clan-inflation continued, with groups growing to clans, city-states, nations, empires, and finally superpowers seeking to extend their influence over the whole earth. Society is indeed a “joint-stock company” with each citizen fathering a state that has more ability to ensure the survival of their future generations that they could ever have themselves.

To live wholly from within as Emerson suggests is to act without thinking, to assume there is a “divine spark” that guides ones actions. Acting in this manner will lead to perversion of the best intentions – selfless acts with ulterior motives or a façade created for personal gain. To be truly self-reliant an individual must give time for their reason to overcome their instinctual tendencies, and not act only from within, but from the knowledge they can draw, not only from their own experiences but from their history and the experiences of those around them.

Emerson contends that “imitation is suicide;” however even the greatest men of all time learned from other, less recognized, great men. Even Emerson himself cannot contend that his philosophy is entirely his – it is greatly influenced by what he learned as a minister, from his seminary and his congregation, and is less obviously influenced by other works of literature such as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” All men were taught by another man, save perhaps Adam – even he had a teacher, for God himself taught Adam what it was to be human.

In a society where survival means more than mere sustenance, self-reliance hinges on our ability to combine our personal revelations with the wisdom of others to thwart our selfish instincts. Without rational thought, we are like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, believing in what our senses seem to tell us. How easy would it have been for those men to realize their folly, as they know they are real, and see they cast a shadow, to realize the other shadows were cast by objects kept out of their perception. Opportunity comes by circumstance, but our reactions are our own. Determining the best action – rather than reacting – is what separates the great from the diminutive.





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