Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ralph's Beautiful Dream

On Wednesday, I have a paper due about Ralph Emerson’s Nature. Reading his stuff has given me a chance to reflect some more on something else I read by him: Self-Reliance.

Have you read this man's writing? He makes prose glow. The way he talks about the countryside makes you never want to see another skyscraper again. The rhythm of his words draws me in every time I read his works. He does with the English language what Mozart did with violins and voices.

Unfortunately, it is philosophy that he dabbles in, and not just lush descriptions. So I keep a careful eye out when I read Emerson's work. I don’t agree with all of the points he makes. Self-Reliance in particular is outright ludicrous. His whole point in there is to make your own judgments, and not let anyone tell you what to do or believe. Over and over, he pounds it through. “Don’t let anyone influence you!”

It sounds wondrous. He has a lengthy passage where he depicts someone facing his loved ones, like Socrates before the Athenian court, and pronouncing his resolution to be independent, and say and do what he means, and not what anyone else means. What a tableau! To actually take that step would be revolutionary. It would be exhilarating. Wouldn’t you like to stand up in your living room someday and say something like that?

I won't stop you, but think for a minute. Why is Emerson trying to influence you into not letting anything influence you? If anyone can explain this to me, please do. Until then, I remain convinced that the whole piece is self-contradictory.

Which is curious, because at the same time I realized how Emerson-like my thoughts have been in college. I didn’t even realize it; I didn’t read Self-Reliance until a few weeks ago. But it makes sense. Ever since my exposure to basic logic and The Republic last semester, I was moving towards Emerson’s ideal. When it came to faith, I was no longer satisfied with acting like everyone who seemed devout. Now I began to question them. Why do they kneel extra long after Mass? Why do they wear veils over their head? Are they sincere about what they do?

If I had taken any careful thought about these thoughts, they would have led me to the same ideas as Emerson. For years before now, I entertained a self-ideal that was far higher than the ideal I was living out. The natural result was disillusionment, both within myself and the people around me. Nobody ever seemed to do anything courageous or important in my world. Everyone seemed bored. They seemed like they were conforming, and not being their own men.

I didn’t know it for a while, but I was chasing Emerson’s self-reliance. I wanted to be completely ruled by my reason, my principles, and my thoughts. No one else could move me. And so many times, I fell short of this, and watched Family Guy with my friends even though I knew I could be enriching myself with other things.

Spending time with friends is a good thing, though. Family Guy, not so much. Little things like that obsess me to this day. I haven't completely let go of Emerson's dream.

I try to keep it under control, now. I’ll leave you with one more twist in the track. I was sitting in my General Psychology class the other day. Dr. Buhman-Wiggs, as usual, had my full attention. Right at the end, he previewed the next lecture on social psychology.

He drew a pie chart on the white board. He told us that the three wedges displayed the biggest influences on human behavior. He told us it was based on years of research, and hundreds of studies.

The first wedge took up 10% of that pie. It represented one’s personal beliefs.

The second wedge took up 30%. It represented our personality and habits.

The third wedge took up 60%. It represented social context.

Think about that this week.

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