Every young man ought to read Emerson's essay on ‘Self Reliance'. It is the manliest, most virile essay that was ever penned. It is calculated to cure alike those two mental maladies common to youth, namely, self depreciation and self conceit. It is almost as sure to reveal to the prig the smallness and emptiness of his vanity, as it is to show the bashful man the weakness and ineffectuality of his dividence. It is a new revelation of manly dignity; as much a revelation as any that was vouchsafed to ancient seer and prophet, and perhaps a more practical, eminently suited to his mechanic age, coming, as it does from a modern prophet of a new type and called in a new race, and its chief merit is its powerfully tonic quality.
Let not self-reliance be confounded with self conceit, for as high and excellent as is the one, just so low and worthless is other. There cannot be anything mean in self reliance, while in self conceit there cannot be anything great.
The man that never says "no" when questioned on subjects of which he is entirely ignorant, to avoid, as he imagines, being thought ignorant, but confidently puts forward guesses and assumptions as knowledge, will be known for his ignorance, and ill esteemed for his added conceit. An honest confession of ignorance will command respect where a conceited assumption of knowledge will elicit contempt.
The timid, apologetic man who seems almost afraid to live, who fears that he will do something not in the approved way, and will subject himself to ridicule, is not a full man. He must needs imitate others, and have no independent action. He needs that self reliance which will compel him to fall back on his own initiative, and so become a new example instead of the slavish follower of an old one. As for ridicule he who is hurt by it is no man. The shafts or mockery and sarcasm cannot pierce the strong armor of the self reliant man. They cannot reach the invincible citadel of his honest heart to sting or wound it. The sharp arrows of irony may rain upon him, but he laughs as they are deflected by the strong breast plate of his confidence, and fall harmless about him.
"Trust thy self", says Emerson, ‘every heart vibrates to that iron string". Throughout the ages men have so far leaned, and do still lean, upon external makeshifts instead of standing upon their own native simplicity and original dignity. The few who have had the courage to so stand, have been singled out and elevated as heroes; and he is indeed the true hero who has the hardihood to let his nature speak for itself, who has that strong metal which enables him to stand upon his own intrinsic worth.
It is true that the candidate for such heroism must endure the test of strength. He must not be shamed from his ground by the bugbears of an initiate conventionalist. He must not fear for his reputation or position, or for his standing in the church or his prestige in local society. He must learn to act and live as independently of these considerations as he does of the current fashions in the antipodes. Yet when he has endured this test, and stander and odium have failed to move or afflict him, he has become a man indeed, one that society will have to reckon with, and finally accept on his own terms.
Sooner or later all men will turn or guidance to the self reliant man, and while the best minds do not make a prop of him; they respect and value his work and worth, and recognize his place among the goods that have gone before.
It must not be thought an indication of self reliance to scorn to learn. Such an attitude is born of a stubborn superciliousness which has the elements of weakness, and is prophetic of a fall, rather than the elements of strength and the promise of high achievement which are characteristic of self-reliance. Pride and vanity must not be associated with self rests upon incidentals and appurtenances—on money, clothing, property, prestige, position and these lost, all is lost. Self reliance rests upon essentials and principles on worth, probity, purity, sincerity, character, truth and whatever may be lost is of little account, for these are never lost. Pride tries to hide its ignorance by ostentation and assumption, and is unwilling to be thought a learner in any direction. It stands, during its little fleeting day, on ignorance and appearance, and the higher it is lifted up today the lower it will be cast down tomorrow. Self reliance has nothing to hide, and is willing to learn; and while there can be no humility where pride is, self reliance and humility are compatible, nay more, they are complementary, and the sublimes form of self reliance is only found associated with the profoundest humility. "Extremes meet" says Emerson "and there is no better example than the haughtiness of humility. No aristocrat, no prince born to the purple, can begin to compare with the self respect of the saint. Why is he so lowly, but that he knows that he can well afford it, resting on the largeness of God in him?" It was Buddha who, I this particular, said;—"Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall be a lamp unto themselves, relying upon them selves only and not relying upon any external help, but holding fast to the truth as their lamp, and seeking their salvation in the truth alone, shall not look for assistance to any one beside themselves, it is they, among my disciples, who shall reach the very top mist height. But they must be willing to learn". In this saying, the repeated insistence on the necessity for relying upon one's self alone, coupled with the final exhortation to be eager to learn, is the wisest utterance on self reliance that I know. In it, the Great Teacher comprehends that perfect balance between self trust and humility which the man of truth must acquire.
"Self-trust is the essence of heroism". All great men are self reliant, and we should use them as teachers and exemplars and not as props and perambulators. A great man comes who leans upon no one, but stands alone in the solitary dignity of truth, and straightway the world begins to lean upon him, begins to make him an excuse for spiritual indolence and a destructive self-abasement. Better than cradling our vices in the strength of the great would it be to newly light our virtues at their luminous lamp. If we rely upon the light of another, darkness will over take us, but if we rely upon our own light we have but to keep it burning. We may both draw light from another and communicate it, but to think it sufficient while our own lamp is rusting in neglect, is shortly to find ourselves abandoned in darkness. Our own inner light is the light which never fails us.
What is the "inner light" of the Quakers but another name for self reliance? We should stand upon what we are, not upon what another is. "But I am so small and poor", you say: well, stand upon that smallness, and presently it will become great. A babe must needs suckle and cling, but not so man. Henceforth he goes upon his own limbs. Men pray to God to put into their hands that which they are framed to reach out for; to put into their mouth the food for which they should strenuously labor. But men will outgrow this spiritual infancy. The time will come when men will no more pay a priest to pray for them and preach to them.
Man's chief trouble is a mistrust of himself, so that the self trusting man becomes a rare and singular spectacle. If a man look upon himself as a "worm", what can come out of him but an ineffectual wriggling? Truly, "He that humbleth shall be exalted," but not he that degradeth himself. A man should see himself as he is, and if there is any unworthiness in him, he should get rid of it, and retain and rely upon that which is of worth. A man is only debased when he debases himself; he is exalted when he lives an exalted life.
Why should a man, with ceaseless iterations, draw attention to his fallen nature? There is a false humility which takes a sort of pride in vice. If one has fallen, it is that he may rise and be the wiser for it. If a man falls into a ditch, he does not lie there and call upon every passer by to mark his fallen state, he gets up and goes on his way with greater care. So if one has fallen into the ditch of vice, let him rise and be cleansed, and go on his way rejoicing.
There is not a sphere in life wherein a man's influence and prosperity will not be considerably increased by even a measure of self reliance, and to the teacher—whether secular or religious to organizers, managers, overseers, and in all positions of control and command, it is an indispensable equipment.
The four grand qualities of self reliance are:
Decision makes a man strong. The wearer is the weakling. A man who is to play a speaking part, however small, in the drama of life must be decisive and know what he is about. Whatever he doubts, he must not doubt his power to act. He must know his part in life, and put all his energy into it. He must have some solid ground of knowledge from which to work, and stand securely on that. It may be only the price and quality of stock, but he must know his work thoroughly, and know that he knows it. He must be ready at any time to answer for himself when his duty is impugned. He should be so well grounded upon his particular practice as not to be affected with hesitation on any point or in any emergence. It is a true saying that "the man that hesitates is lost". No one believes in him who does not believe in himself, who doubts, halts, and wavers, and cannot extricate himself from the tangled threads of two courses. Who would deal with a tradesman who did not know the price of his own goods, or was not sure where to find them? A man must know his business. If he does not know his own, who shall instruct him? He must be able to give a good report of the truth that is in him, must have that deceive touch which skill and knowledge only can impart.
Certainty is a great element in self reliance. To have weight, a man must have some truth to impart, and all skill is a communication of truth. He must "speak with authority and not as the scribes". He must master something, and know that he has mastered it, so as to deal with it lucidly and understandingly, in the way of a master, and not to remain always an apprentice.
Indecision is a disintegrating factor. A minute's faltering may turn back the current of success. Men who are afraid to decide quickly for fear of making a mistake, nearly always makes a mistake when they do act. The quickest, in thought and action, are less liable to blunder, and it is better to act with decision and make a mistake than to act with indecision and make a mistake than to act with indecision and make a mistake, for in the former case there is but error, but in the latter, weakness is added to error.
A man should be decided always, both where he knows and where he does not know. He should be as ready to say "no" as "yes", as quick to acknowledge his ignorance as to impart his knowledge. If he stands upon fact, and acts from the simple truth, he will find no room for halting between two opinions.
Make up your mind quickly, and act decisively. Better still, have a mind that is already made up and then decision will be instinctive and spontaneous.
Steadfastness arises in the mind that is quick to decide. It is indeed a final decision upon the best course of conduct and the best path in life. It is the vow of the soul to stand firmly by its principles whatever betide. It is neither necessary nor unnecessary that there by any written or spoken vow, for unswerving loyalty to a fixed principle is the spirit of all vows.
The man without fixed principles will not accomplish much. Expediency is a quagmire and a thorny waste, in which a man is continually sticking in the shifting mud of his own moral looseness, and is pricked and scratched with the thorns of his self created disappointments.
One must have some solid ground on which to stand among one's fellows. He cannot stand on the bog of concession. Shiftiness is a vice of weakness, and the vices of weakness do more to undermine character and influence than the vices of strength. The man that is vicious through excess of animal strength takes a shorter cut to truth—when his mind is made up that he who is vicious through lack of virility, and whose chief vice consists in not having a mind of his own upon anything. When one understands that power is adaptable to both good and bad ends, it will not surprise him that the drunkards and harlots should reach the kingdom of heaven before the diplomatic religionists. They are at least through in the course which they have adopted, vile though it be, and thoroughness is strength. It only needs that strength to be turned from bad to good, and lo! The loathed sinner has become the lofty saint!
A man should have a firm, fixed, determined mind. He should decide upon those principles which are best to stand by in all issues, and which will most safely guide him through the maze of conflicting opinions, and inspire him with unflinching courage in the battle of life. Having adopted his principles, they should be more to him than gain or happiness, more even than life itself, and if he never deserts them he will find that they will never desert him; they will defend him from all enemies, deliver him safely from all dangers, light up his pathway through all darkness and difficulties. They will be to him a light in darkness, a resting place from sorrow, and a refuge from the conflicts of the world.
Dignity clothes, as with a majestic garment, the steadfast mind. He who is as unyielding as a bar of steel when he is expected to compromise with evil, and as supple as a willow wand in adapting himself to that which is good, carries about with him a dignity that calms and uplifts others by its presence.
The unsteady mind, the mind that is not anchored to any fixed principles, that is stubborn where its own desires are threatened, and yielding where its own moral welfare is at stake, has no gravity, no balance, no calm composure.
The man of dignity cannot be down-trodden and enslaved, because he has ceased to tread upon and enslave himself. He at once disarms, with a look, a word, a wise and suggestive silence, any attempt to demean him. His mere presence is a wholesome reproof to the flippant and the unseemly, while it is a rock of strength to the lover of the good.
But the chief reason why the dignified man commands respect is, not only that he is supremely self respecting, but that he graciously treats all others with a due esteem. Pride loves itself, and treats those beneath it with supercilious contempt, for love of self and contempt for others are always found together in equal degrees, so that the greater the self love, the greater the arrogance. True dignity arises, not from self love, but from self sacrifice that is, from unbiased adherence to a fixed central principle. The dignity of the Judge arises from the fact that in the performance of his duty he sets aside all personal consideration, and stands solely upon the law; his little personality, impermanent and fleeting' becomes nothing, while the law, enduring and majestic, becomes all. Should a Judge, in deciding a case, forget the law, and fall into personal feeling and prejudice, his dignity would be gone. So with the man of stately purity of character, he stands upon the divine law, and not upon personal feeling, for immediately a man gives way to passion he has sacrificed dignity, and takes his place as one of the multitude of the unwise and uncontrolled.
Every man will have composure and dignity in the measure that he acts from a fixed principle. It only needs that the principle be right, and therefore unassailable. So long as man abides by such a principle, and does not waver or descend into the personal element, attacking passions, prejudices and interests, however powerful, will be weak and ineffectual before the unconquerable strength of an incorruptible principle, and will at last yield their combined and unseemly confusion to his single and majestic right.
Independence is the birthright of the strong and well controlled man. All men love and strive for liberty. All men aspire to some sort of freedom.
A man should labor for himself or for the community. Unless he is a cripple, a chronic invalid, or is mentally irresponsible, he should be ashamed to depend upon others for all he has, giving nothing in return. If one imagines that such a condition is freedom, let him know that it is one of the lowest forms of slavery. The time will come when, to be a drone in the human hive, even (as matters are now) a respectable drone and not a poor tramp, will be a public disgrace, and will be no longer respectable.
Independence, freedom, glorious liberty, come through labor and not from idleness, and the self reliant man is too strong, too honorable, and too upright to depend upon others, like a sucking babe, for his support. He earns, with hand or brain, the right to live as he becomes a man and a citizen; and this he does whether born rich or poor, for riches are no excuse for idleness; rather are they an opportunity to labor, with the rare facilities which they afford, for the good of the community.
Only he who is self supporting is free, self reliant, independent.
Thus is the nature of the Eight Pillars explained. On what foundation they rest, the manner of their building, their ingredients, the fourfold nature of the material of which each is composed, what positions they occupy, and how they support the Temple, all may now build; and he who knew but imperfectly may know more perfectly; and he who knew perfectly may rejoice in this systematization and simplification of the moral order in Prosperity. Let us now consider the Temple itself, that we may know the might of its Pillars, the strength of its walls, the endurance of its roof, and the architectural beauty and perfection of the whole.
More Articles by This Author James Allen
James Allen was a little-known philosophical writer and poet. He is best recognized for his book, As a Man Thinketh. Allen wrote about complex subjects such as faith, destiny, love, patience, and religion but had the unique ability of explaining these subjects clearly and in a way that is easy to understand. He often wrote about cause and effect, sowing and reaping, as well as overcoming sadness, sorrow, and grief. For more information on the life of James Allen, click here.