Dictionaries and online searches will reveal a number of meanings for self-reliance. In general, “self-reliance” means doing things on your own, not because you have to, but because you want to know that everything is done according to a higher-personal standard. But what does that mean?
Society is a Joint-stock Company
A brief search of the term will also show that it is the title of an 1841 essay by American writer Ralph Waldo Emmerson. In the essay, Emmerson writes that “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the leader. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion”.
Emmerson was writing in response to an idea that had been proposed in 1762 by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s work, “On the Social Contract” was influential in the formation of the early American government and in the subsequent popularization of the democratic societies that would replace the world’s monarchies over the next two centuries. The title of the work refers to Rousseau’s idea that society is formed when people surrender certain rights to their government in exchange for certain protections.
Absolve Yourself to Yourself
In this context, the term “self-reliance” as popularized by Emmerson, can be taken as a shocking call to exist independent of society’s social orders in order to better follow our own wills and consciences. “Absolve yourself to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world,” wrote Emmerson.
Much of the essay is a call for the rejection of institutions like religion and capitalism. Indeed, Emmerson’s essay reads like a call for anarchy in the name of chaotic good. While we don’t need to accept Emmerson’s more extreme points, his essay remains a call for all of us to follow our own moral compass and not to let ourselves be defined by the ideas of others.
The politico-economic climate in America in the 1840s was very similar to that of our own time. Economic protectionism was on the rise as vast empires distributed exotic products on an open market but feared the competition from powerful neighbors. Meanwhile, strong views on social and political issues polarized individuals on party lines.
In this context, “self-reliance” refers to making up our own minds about what we think is right and good and acting on those beliefs rather than allowing other people to define and control us or choosing a category to fit ourselves into.
Prefer Honest Company
Fitting into defined social categories is a good way to quickly gain acceptance, but it can also mean agreeing to things rather than agreeing with them. In this way, self-reliance also means being able to prefer one’s own honest company to membership in a group that we have to impress by making concessions on our own morals.
Swim Against the Stream
Because self-identification is such a large part of self-reliance, self-education must be a large part of this lifestyle as well. Identifying with a social or political group often means being told what to think rather than coming to our own conclusions. Unfortunately, many people want to engage with information that will enforce what they already believe.
Unfortunately, this tendency – called “confirmation bias” — is good for ratings. As a result, it can be difficult to find news sources that “tell it like it is” rather than how their target audience wants to hear it.
Finding trustworthy information is difficult, but it can be gratifying to know that you are finding your own understanding rather than following the stream. These days a lot of people are willing to complain about “mainstream media” but no one seems willing to go to the source of the information themselves.