Monday, October 10, 2011

Emerson and Kipling: On Conformity and Self-Reliance

"What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion: it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of the solitude."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson --
 "A man must consider what a blind-man's bluff is this game of conformity," Emerson wrote in his great essay on Self-Reliance. And if this was so in Emerson's nineteenth century New England, circumscribed as it was by local conditions and custom, by distance and distinctiveness, how much greater the challenge today when we live in a mass society assailed on all sides by messages of conformity?

Today, unlike in Emerson's age, we are met each day with a barrage of advertising on just how we should live, on just what we should consume, and just what we should aspire to. Today, perhaps more so than in any time past, we rely not on ourselves but on others to define just who and what we are. But is this not its own form of madness? Is this not an injurious game of bluff and folly as Emerson observed?

"For non-conformity," he pointed out, "the world whips you with its displeasure." Yet, is it not the person who refuses to conform - a Ghandhi, a Churchill, a Mandela, an MLK Jr. - who ultimately shapes both our ideals and our destinies? In the end, are we not all forced to be self-reliant or perish under the weight of our circumstances, seemingly misunderstood by all?

Perhaps this message is best captured by another Victorian,  Rudyard Kipling, in his immortal poem on self-reliance:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!
 "A foolish consistency is the hobgobblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines," Emerson observed. "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words," he urged, "and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day."

"Is it so bad then," he asks, "to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."

1 comment:

Trevor said...

Thank you for bringing together and sharing so many great quotes, and thank you for sharing the poem "If." Over the years I have known many people, including my father, who have used this poem as a guide to life, in their studies, in business, in sports, in their personal lives.

I am involved with a group of "If" enthusiasts in creating a website that is devoted to this poem, and it will include similar poems, articles and music, all inspired by "If." I thought that you and your readers may be interested in this. Please take a look:

Thank you and all the best for 2012!