The Foul Reign of Self-Reliance

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Collin Kennedy
The Foul Reign of Self-Reliance
My first exposure to the high-flown pap of Benjamin Anastas’s “The Foul Reign of Self-Reliance” came in a quiet library at the private institution where I had enrolled to learn the secrets of education and because I wanted, at the age of 21, to fulfill my philosophy core and graduate on time. Cute openings aside, Mr. Anastas has a significant amount of gall calling his private school teacher Mr. Sideways when it seems, to me, that he is the one with the skewed vision. As I read through his essay the first time, I found myself growing discontented and distant from the author. As I read through it a second time, I began to grow increasingly frustrated and outraged at how Anastas twisted Emerson’s words to fit his purpose and distorted Emerson’s central message to make it appear self-centered and egotistical. Anastas refers to Emerson’s doctrine as a “spell” that countless others have fell under throughout the past and present. I would like to remind Mr. Anastas that many of those “countless others” that were influenced by Emerson’s “spell”, as he puts it, are people that went on to shape American culture as we know it. Is self-reliance not what this country was built on? Did we not break away from the English Monarchy because we were tired of following, tired of not taking action in our own beliefs? From what I remember each of the colonies were founded because an individual decided to strike out on what they believed in. While my outrage at Anastas is clearly evident, I find it ironic that Emerson would argue that Anastas is in fact doing what the “Self-Reliance” preaches – voicing one’s own ideas and thoughts instead of accepting what those before have said. By striking out against Emerson (an author who many have followed over the years), Anastas is in fact qualifying that which he is against. In this essay I will attempt to refute Benjamin’s criticisms by justifying Emerson’s main themes of “Self-Reliance”. While I don’t agree fully with Emerson’s essay, which I hope will be evident, I find most of “The Foul Reign” obstinate and far from the truth.

One of the first themes that Emerson dives into in his essay is that of societal disapproval and foolish consistency. He writes, “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.”(Emerson, p. 156) What a quote indeed. In today’s world of tech savvy, body conscious, like minded individuals, to speak your mind openly in opposition of “the big issues” or the major trends is to be met with scorn by one’s peers. We are so afraid of being judged and outcast that we settle easily into the group think mentality. Education is the perfect example of this. Professors are constantly challenging students to speak their minds and yet, we the pupils find ourselves not independently thinking of the question, but rather answering with what we think the teacher wants to hear. God forbid the professor or other students laugh at our ideas or disagree with us altogether. So we stifle down our true beliefs, rather than think of facing embarrassment. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” Emerson says. (Emerson, p. 151) Anastas goes on to scorn this line by saying that they are so ingrained in us that they feel like natural law. That is because if it natural law! As Emerson says, it would be unnatural to go against that which we feel and believe and believe in our hearts.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”(Emerson, p. 157) In this quote, Emerson is discussing the importance of following ones nature and internal truth on a day-by-day basis. He explains that there is nothing wrong with waking up one day and radically changing one’s views. It is, Emerson says, actually encouraged. Clinging to the past will on result in a waste of time and resources and will never allow the human to reach its full potential. It is the collection of these...
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