The Value of Self-Reliance
The world is always the same in that nothing is so constant as self-interest and the pursuit of pleasure. This truth never surprises. But one thing always does, and that is the life of self-reliance, it being so rare, and in our time more and more so.
Self-reliance is rare because few people are capable of it; they must rather rely almost constantly on others. Accordingly, if you observe humankind in general, you will quickly notice that the majority’s beliefs and way of life are not individual but generic, derived from what John Stuart Mill nicely described as the “tyranny of public opinion.” Their very psychology and inner poverty requires this, which indeed is quite comforting for them. And since the majority, in all places and times, are slaves to custom and public opinion, like children at the playground they feel an instinctive loathing for anything that is unlike them, and in particular, for whatever is noble and excellent, since they themselves are at best middling through and through. Moreover, because the majority’s values, beliefs and sense of self are derived not from themselves, but fashioned in imitation of the commonest type, it follows that they are forever hostile to that rarest of things, individuals, since these stand in radical contrast to them, and so make them feel threatened.
And yet self-reliance, though so noble and excellent, is usually only a romantic abstraction. In practice, it presupposes discipline and sacrifice. It is hard work before it is freedom. In this it is analogous to excellence in the arts and the life of the mind and, I suppose, to the highest excellence generally. Certainly very few people are truly self-reliant. Mere selfishness and “rugged individualism” are something else, and self-reliance should not be confused with them.
The truly self-reliant person is one who disciplines himself not to rely on others to the extent that most people do. He has, then, a certain inner strength, as well as the judgment to know how self-interested and inconstant most people are, so that there is always an immense danger in relying on them. He is commonly a loner or even a recluse. For once experience has shown him that both the minds and characters of most of his fellow human beings are badly lacking and thus imprudent to associate with, he goes his own way, is indifferent to what most think of him, and simplifies his manner of life so that he is answerable to his fellow human beings as little as possible.
The self-reliant person is no joiner of groups or communities. If he cannot lead others, he usually would rather not engage them, for it is only thus that his power remains in himself. Nor is he fit to be some cog in a paltry machine, let alone to answer to the innumerable dullards and fools who triumph in our leveling (i.e., democratic) time. He appeals to his own authority, that is, to his own highest standard of excellence. He does not seek approval, network, play politics, schmooze, tell people what they want to hear, or engage in similar vulgarities in which academics, artists, writers, business people, and other types of organization man are quite happily at home. None of this is necessary, for the simple reason that his sense of self-worth is wholly in himself, and unshakable.
It is otherwise with most people, and hence that conventional abjectness and external (i.e., coming from other people) validation that means so much to them, and which is sure to render them likable and never in want of friends or company, since there’s nothing the majority find more winning than a semblance of their own dullness and inferiority. Indeed, it’s this that makes them so fond of group activity in all its forms. It is not in their nature to master a thing on their own. Organization man rather delights to work with his fellow team members, to do his part along with them, for the good of the team. But the self-reliant person has very few peers, and there’s usually a decline in the quality of his existence once he leaves his own room.
When he walks into Best Buy or some such place, the self-reliant person sees a great many things he can well do without. The reason is that, for him, it is not worth sacrificing his freedom of consciousness in order to be able to buy the latest Ipod or whatever, since in order to do that he will have to work more than is necessary to meet his basic needs, and thereby lose time he could devote to worthier pursuits.
Such severe distinctions guide the whole conduct of his life. In choosing friends, for instance, he is far more selective than most, being far more discriminating. For, as Seneca says in one of his letters to Lucilius, “to consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” And in another wise letter he explains that
accidents, though they may be serious, are few—such as being shipwrecked or thrown from one’s carriage; but it is from his fellow-man that a man’s everyday danger comes. Equip yourself against that; watch that with an attentive eye. There is no evil more frequent, no evil more persistent, no evil more insinuating. Even the storm, before it gathers, gives a warning; houses crack before they crash; and smoke is the forerunner of fire. But damage from man is instantaneous, and the nearer it comes the more carefully it is concealed. You are wrong to trust the countenances of those you meet. They have the aspect of men, but the souls of brutes; the difference is that only beasts damage you at the first encounter; those whom they have passed by they do not pursue. For nothing ever goads them to do harm except when need compels them: it is hunger or fear that forces them into a fight. But man delights to ruin man.
Therefore, Seneca concludes, “withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.” Of course, this presupposes the judgment to select persons of intelligence and good character from the ignorant and corrupt majority.
But for all that, the self-reliant person is no god. He is not altogether independent of others. In the practical affairs of life, he, like everyone, requires other people. But he knows that, as Cicero put it, “a good reputation is not worth raising a finger to obtain, if it were not that it is so useful.” Where others are driven by the desire to be distinguished in the eyes of their fellows, he is distinctly self-assured (and he alone!): he knows who he is and what he can do; therefore he seeks excellence on his own terms, not conforming to anything that might win him the esteem of his fellows, who, unlike him, rest their sense of self-worth on how others perceive them. He, by contrast, does things for the sake of their own value, and so, again, is the last person to go in for networking, schmoozing, flattery, and the usual vulgarities in which the majority are in their natural happy element. He possesses depths; these sustain him, and it is owing to them that he cannot go in for the cheap worldly games that are acceptable to the superficial majority. He knows that, as David Hume wrote in a letter to Adam Smith, “a wise man’s kingdom is his own breast: or, if he ever looks farther, it will only be to the judgment of a select few, who are free from prejudices, and capable of examining his work. Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude.”
For the self-reliant person, the highest value is freedom, and this entails the willingness to stand alone, even to be an outcast or hated since, as the great philosopher of self-reliance Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “to be great is to be misunderstood.” It is no easy life, but this is essentially what it means to be self-reliant. It is not necessarily a happier life than that of the person who is not self-reliant, but it is a more disciplined, stronger and freer one, and like the stoical life, it tries to avoid vicissitudes and minimize suffering: and to do so it is necessary to rely on oneself, not others.
Thus the self-reliant person responds to suffering by returning upon himself; indeed by inquiring deeper into himself: he contemplates his situation, and where others will join a support group or see a psychiatrist, he makes sense of things for himself; and through his conclusions will learn either to change his situation or, if the problem is beyond his control, to simply endure it. His power, then, is always in himself, while the majority rely on others, who, though they may provide emotional support (of which the self-reliant person, with his great inner strength, has less need), will often only lead him further astray, as we see in the case of psychiatry, or rather, the pharmaceutical industry, this sham religion that, like some corrupt pastor or priest, makes people numb but hardly less blind.