When my wife and I were first married, long before the children came, we spent a season working out a puzzle: why should we work? Assuming — as, in this bountiful country, it is safe to do — that someone, whether family or government, would support us, why should we toil away our lives to achieve the same end?
We wanted to be independent, we said. But why? What was the advantage of that? Who, after all, is happier: the working stiff, or the child who depends on his parents? The curious thing is, we wanted to reason our way to an explanation of self-reliance. We entered a labyrinth of perfect logic, but never really came out.
To our amazement, it became clear that self-reliance was an utterly illogical proposition.
That changed nothing, of course — we weren’t about to become street people because of a failure of logic. But we learned something. The values to which we are attached by unyielding emotions are a matter of choice, rather than reason or interest. This, I would add, is particularly true of self-reliance, a virtue that demands much sacrifice.
This is my second post on the virtues that, together, add up to a morality of freedom. The first focused on self-rule. Our present theme, self-reliance, may sound identical but in fact works in the opposite direction: externally rather than internally. Self-rule means mastery over desire. Self-reliance means mastery over the environment, with emphasis on the social environment.
Self-reliance is considered a peculiarly American virtue. We don’t much like servility. We don’t even like servants. American males are expected to putter around the house building and fixing things — also to clean gutters, mow lawns, grill meat, take out the garbage, and change the oil in the SUV. On top of that, they are also expected to work: long hours at the office, to earn their bread in the sweat of their pale brows. American women usually work just as hard and long professionally, then come home to a second job as the family’s chief operating officer.
The generous take on all this activity is that we are a dutiful and responsible people. No doubt we are. A more logical interpretation is that we have become servants to ourselves. What’s the payoff?
Emerson titled one of his most famous essays “Self-Reliance.” He really meant nonconformism, however, in the defense of which he threaded like beads an insufferably dull series of aphorisms: not the sage of Concord at his best. Yet one passage — bearing directly on our subject, self-reliance — makes the piece worth reading, not least because it comes off so politically incorrect:
And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
Self-reliance equals adulthood, in politics but also in social and family life. Adulthood is a lonely condition, full of cares and responsibilities. We are not minors. The fantasy life of childhood, with its adorations and superstitions, has been transcended, left behind. Nor are we cowards or weaklings, begging for the protection of powerful parental figures. The burden of every action falls on us, whether at work, in the community, in the political arena, or even in the unmowed lawn. We are now adults — we are no longer free to turn our back on the unpleasantness of life.
The payoff? The payoff is the freedom to engage, and from that freedom flows all the dignity of the human race.
The self-reliant person works not for lust of money, but for a wealth of choices inaccessible to the idle. He loathes debt, and will pay off his credit card bill each month. He rebels against favor-currying, and would rather do without than go, hat in hand, to trade away his independence for a mess of potage. Whatever his moral and political convictions, he will not bend them to attract a panderer or appease a bully.
He can be secular or religious, but he will never surrender his judgment before an ideology or a faith. Being human, the self-reliant person will sometimes be wrong in his opinions, but because he takes counsel with his own highest nature — his “transcendent destiny” — he will never be led astray by lynch mobs or intellectual herds.
Feudal monarchies required an interlocking set of dependent relationships. Aristocracy requires a mafia-like dependence on the lord of the place or the tribe. To endure, our system of government requires self-reliance of its citizens. Otherwise, we will grow dependent on politicians who, with the best intentions, for our own good, will take away our freedom of action so we can’t do harm to ourselves. We will be returned to childhood, and our rulers will become our schoolmasters — a fate de Tocqueville predicted, correctly, for today’s Europe:
Our contemporaries are ever a prey to two conflicting passions: they feel the need of guidance, and they long to stay free. Unable to wipe out these two contradictory instincts, they try to satisfy them both together. Their imagination conceives a government which is unitary, protective, and all-powerful, but elected by the people. Centralization is combined with the sovereignty of the people. They console themselves for being under schoolmasters by thinking that they have chosen them themselves.
Fortunately, most of us, against all reason, have so far chosen differently.