In 2019, I waded into the life and writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. My plan was to follow the path where some of my favorite writers had gone and read for myself the men and women who had deeply nourished, encouraged, inspired and moved them to give their time, talents and truths to love and encourage others. In searching for this wisdom, I was desperately aware of my own ignorance and arrogance. I thought if I had any hope of changing my current condition that I must take the narrow path believing that I might run into Wisdom and receive her divine gift.
Over the past few years, I had already traveled down several similar roads like the one I was walking to Ralph Waldo Emerson. It seemed I had stumbled on how to follow the human chain through which wisdom flowed through a witness of truth from a witness of truth. For example, Søren Kierkegaard led me to David Bentley Hart, and Hart led me to Johann Hamaan. On this particular road, Wendell Berry connected to Henry David Thoreau and Thoreau connected to Ralph Waldo Emerson. I am not sure who connected me to Wendell Berry but Wendell Berry seemed to be an overflow of wisdom from many past and present voices. Likewise, one can rest assured when reading Wendell Berry, Thoreau or Emerson, they are also reading The Bible, Confucius, Plato, Shakespeare, Blake, Pascal and many of the greatest writers and thinkers of our age.
In listening to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s volume of essays, I was quickly confronted by my poor education, my unwillingness to diligently search for truth and of how easily I have been satisfied by some piece of fragmented information that I could consume in the present moment to make myself feel smarter and more equipped to control my world. I have to admit in being confronted, I have also felt angry about why I hadn’t been exposed to writers who offered more than some dumb down consumer philosophy or ridiculous formula promising to make my kingdom come and my will be done. But I digress.
Without a doubt, Ralph Waldo Emerson is a genius. It is obvious he searched for truth and relentlessly wrestled with the deeper questions about purpose, life and relationships, pondered divine truths and sat in the bosom of Truth listening and watching it’s ways. Emerson’s writings, including his essay Self-Reliance, are more than enough proof that Emerson repeatedly knocked at Wisdom’s door until she was compelled to open. One would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see that Ralph Waldo Emerson took seriously the call to search for Truth and follow it’s ways.
Though the title of Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance may make one think rugged individualism, it contains no such philosophy or rhetoric. Rather than a call to individual rights, it is a call to personal responsibility. Ralph Waldo Emerson was quite aware of the danger that awaits every person who does not want or try to discover the truth for oneself. Even more so, the fate that awaits the man or women who refuses to live and work the truth out in his or her own self. Emerson wrote in Self- Reliance:
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”
Consider if you will the order and progression of human learning and development. We seemed to have lost this in the postmodern world because the mass of postmodern men and women are now know-it-alls without having ever been a student and dedicating any amount of time to read, study, pursue or live out anything of much substance. Of course, there have always been delusional people here or there, who thought they knew it all from the time they were born till the time they died, but it appears that with the TV came a mass produced audience of know-it-alls who think it unnecessary and a waste to become a student of life and ponder all things. So instead of repeating truths, the audience started regurgitating information and found it inconvenient and of no use to tether information to any kind of truth that could weigh it down and make it not entertaining or “fun.”
The more I have pondered this particular quote in context of Emerson’s essay and in the deeper context of his authorship and life, it has allowed the space time for Emerson to flow through my own story, In so doing, I have realized this particular passage speaks many foundational truths that every human being should easily recognize and know. Even more so, that we should daily remember in order to be our true-selves and live full lives free of our destructive desires, paltry definitions, flimsy constructs and lifeless systems that move us to nihilism.
It is obvious that Ralph Waldo Emerson was first a student before he was a teacher. Obviously, Emerson believed in a particular order of growth and development. Likewise, he knew that education was not only needed, but also necessary to have any hope of arriving at a time when one can take personal responsibility and choose to pursue truth with all of one’s heart, mind, soul and strength outside of the walls of school and beyond the teachings of man. As Emerson saw it, education should, if done correctly, set one free to courageously go into the wild and discover what life could teach a person. He knew the truth that only by living life and being the truth in word, thought and deed could we have any hope in discovering who we are and what it is we really believe to be “truth.”
Therefore, to refuse the gift of life and to refuse the responsibility to live it out would not only squander all opportunities of becoming one’s true self, taking the leap of faith, surrendering to the invisible, trusting in providence, working out one’s own salvation in fear and trembling and testing one’s beliefs and opinions, but it would ensure a life of ignorance and end in suicide. Emerson, like so many witnesses of truth, refused to be conformed to man’s world. Instead, he fought the good fight and committed to participating in his own transformation by the renewing of his mind through the pursuit of what is good, right and true and living it out in his very humble human life.
When Emerson said “envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide” he meant it. Yet, I propose that he didn’t realize that he had uttered a foundational truth that needs to be shouted from the rooftops today more than ever. Imitate a finite human being and never think for yourself and your deadly fate is sealed. You will stop developing and growing, you will begin to wither and die in the prison of someone else’s life. Even worse, in the coffin of your own false-self.
Whether we realize it or not we are “imitating” someone. Imitate a liar or a person who has no integrity and you will become what you practice. Look at our violent and competitive culture, the lack of brotherly love and the growing levels of ignorance and arrogance that have visibly resulted in destruction, disaster and death. We do not have epidemics of diet-related disease, loneliness, addictions, anxiety, depression and divisions because half the people imitated a fool and half the people believed a lie. Sorry, we have all copied fools and, in doing so, we have believed lies and are killing ourselves.
Look around- We are killing ourselves with the words we speak. We are killing ourselves with the thoughts we think and we are killing ourselves with the deeds we do, including the foods we eat, the pills we take, the shows we watch, the responsibilities we refuse to take and by the many ways we consume and use creation and it’s creatures as a means to our own ends. Even more, it is through these innumerable violent acts of commission and omission that we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. As a result, imitation is not just suicide, but imitation becomes murder.