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Think for yourself
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion. It is easy in solitude to live after our own. But the great person is one who in the midst of a crowd can perfectly maintain the independence of solitude.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Is it possible to think for ourselves? Or Is everything we think just a remix of what we’ve consumed?
The transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, believes that everyone has the ability to think independently, and that it’s the best way to live.
In the following dialogue, I talk to Emerson about the challenges and benefits of independent thinking.
(This is a historically accurate dialogue with Emerson based on his essay “Self Reliance”. His responses are either direct quotes, or based on his writings. Citations are included so you can see the original context for each response.)
DKB: Is independent thinking even possible? It seems like no matter what we do, we always end up copying the things we’ve seen and heard to some degree.
Emerson: If it isn’t possible for humans to have original ideas, then how do you think we ever invented anything in the first place? How do you think we got here?
The progress of humanity is the result of the few individuals who thought independently, and were bold enough to share those thoughts.1
Caesar lived his truth, and for centuries after we had the Roman Empire. Christ lived his truth, and millions of people now grow and learn from his genius.
An institution is the lengthened shadow of a single individual. All of history resolves itself easily into the biography of a few bold and earnest people.
You’re always going to be better at being yourself than copying others. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare, Newton, or Franklin?2
Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Genius is always the enemy of excessive influence.3
We all have a unique way of thinking, as brave and grand as Moses or Dante, but different from all who came before.
The definition of genius is believing that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for everyone else.4
DKB: Fair enough, independent thinking must be possible for some people. Most of us struggle to do it though.
Maybe it’s something that only a few people have the talent for, which is why these influential figures are so rare.
Emerson: You’re wrong. You have this ability too, just like everyone else. It’s a part of what it means to be human.
The essence of genius is what we call instinct or intuition. We call this primary wisdom “intuition”, while all later teachings are “tuition”. All ideas have a common origin in this deep force, the last place that analysis cannot go beyond, the indefinable first cause.5
We live in the sea of an immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth, and organs of its activity. When we come up with original thoughts, we do nothing ourselves, but allow a passage for this universal intelligence.6
The one thing of value in the world is a free, sovereign, and active soul. Everyone is entitled to this. Everyone contains it within them, but in almost everyone it’s obstructed and unborn. The active soul sees the truth and speaks it.7
DKB: I don’t know…if we all supposedly have this ability, then why is it so hard for most people to do it?
Emerson: It’s hard because society doesn’t want you to do it. All of the pressure around you pushes you away from thinking for yourself, and towards conformity.
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the free thought of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which members agree, in order to better be able to secure bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.8
The virtue in most request is conformity. The world doesn’t want realities and original thinkers, but traditions and obedience. They look upon nonconformists with displeasure and distrust. The outrage of the masses has no deep cause, it is turned on and off as the wind blows and the newspaper directs.9
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion. It is easy in solitude to live after our own. But the great person is one who in the midst of a crowd can perfectly maintain the independence of solitude.10
DKB: Well of course society wants us to conform. If we didn’t conform, we wouldn’t have much of a society would we?
At the same time, like you mentioned, it’s the crazy independent thinkers who help us make progress. And we could all probably benefit from some amount of independent thinking.
If I want to live like this, how do I even begin to overcome all of the societal pressure?
Emerson: Stop living based on the expectations of the people around you. Gather your family, friends, and anyone else whose opinions you care about, and who pressures you to live a certain way, and tell them this:11
“Until now, my focus has been on fitting in and conformity, but from this moment forward I only care about the truth. From this moment on, I obey no law but the eternal law. I will still support my family and friends, but I have to maintain these relations in a new way. I have to step away from your customs, and your ideas of how I should live. I must be myself. I can't break myself any longer for you. If you can love me for what I am, then we will all be happier.”
As an independent thinker, you have to get used to having haters. You have to be willing to look like an idiot, and be misunderstood. Many great thinkers weren’t appreciated until after they were dead. So you may have to spend your whole life being ridiculed, until one day in the future, people see the truth of what you were saying.12
You have to exchange the pleasure of going along with current trends, for the pain of uncertainty.
At the same time, once people do realize the value of your work, many will love and adore you. They’ll celebrate you because you held on to your ideals.13
As they say, you’re crazy until you succeed, then you’re a genius.
DKB: I feel like taking such a bold stand requires some level of conviction in your thoughts and beliefs. And I don’t have that kind of conviction.
I’m always learning new things, and sometimes I change my mind. It seems better not to go around sharing your crazy ideas if you can’t be fully confident in them.
Emerson: Consistency is the other terror that scares us from trusting our own ideas. We have a reverence for our past words and acts. Other people have no data to understand us except our past acts, and we don’t want to disappoint them.14
But why drag on the corpse of your memory in fear of contradicting something you’ve said before? And so what if you contradict yourself? What difference does it make?15
We should bring the past into the present for judgment, and live in a new day.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Speak boldly what you think now, and tomorrow speak boldly what you think tomorrow, even if it contradicts everything you said today.16
DKB: That sounds like a foolish way to live. If you keep boldly changing your mind, then no one’s going to listen to you anymore.
No one will understand what you actually believe.
Emerson: Is it so bad to be misunderstood?
DKB: Sounds bad to me.
Emerson: Pythagoras was misunderstood.
DKB: Pythagoras was legitimately insane.
Emerson: Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that has ever lived has been misunderstood.17
To be great is to be misunderstood.
DKB: Why would anyone trust a word out of your mouth if you change your mind all the time?
Emerson: If you live authentically, then your ideas and actions will still be harmonious in the long term, even if they seem inconsistent in the short term. It will be clear that one thread unites all of your thoughts and actions.18
It will be like the voyage of a ship that goes in a zigzag line. If you look at the line from a sufficient distance, it straightens itself to the average tendency. Over time you’ll have a clear trail of progress that led you to your current viewpoint.
DKB: So you’re saying that if we’re on the path to some truth, it will all converge eventually, even if it seems like we’re changing our mind a lot?
That sounds somewhat reasonable…though I still wouldn’t want to be changing my mind in public that much.
Anyway, there’s one thing I’ve been wondering about when it comes to your idea of independent thinking. Do you think there’s any benefit to studying the past?
As in, do you think we should learn what came before, and build on top of it in new and original ways? Or are you saying we should start from scratch?
Emerson: People are far too reliant on books. They start their thinking from accepted dogmas, not from their own principles.19
Why do we worship the past so much? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul. People are too timid these days. They don’t dare to think for themselves, but rather quote some old sage.20
Instead of original thinkers, we have the bookworm – the book-learned class who values books more than nature and the human constitution. This is bad. This is worse than it seems.21
A well used book is great, but a misused book is the worst. What is the right use of books? They are for nothing but inspiration.22
Of course there are exceptions to this, like science, where you need to learn and build on top of what came before to some degree.23
But in general, relying too much on books means you’re looking backward, but genius always looks forward. The eyes of man are set on his forehead, not his hindhead.24
DKB: I don’t know about that. I understand that we need to think for ourselves, but we can still learn a lot from books and old ideas.
Emerson: Just like no air pump can make a perfect vacuum, no artist can entirely exclude the conventional, local, and perishable from their book. No one can write a book of pure thought that can be as efficient to future generations as to contemporaries.25
Each age must write its own books. Or rather, each generation must write the books for the next.
DKB: Or we can translate the thoughts of older generations into a language that the current generation can understand. That’s what I’m trying to do here with this blog at least.
Anyway, this seems like a good place to end our discussion. You definitely broke my brain in a few ways. Do you have anything else you want to add before we wrap up here?
Emerson: I just want people to consider how foolish the game of conformity really is. If I know what groups you belong to, I can predict your arguments. I already know that you can’t possibly say a new and spontaneous idea. You’ve pledged yourself to only look at one side of an argument, the permitted side.26
Isn’t it the biggest disgrace in the world not to be a recognizable individual, not to reflect your unique perspective, but to be a tiny piece of the mass identity to which you belong?27
I believe that humanity has been wronged. We have wronged ourselves. We have almost lost the light that can lead us back to our birthright. People of the world today are bugs, and are called “the mass” or “the herd”.28
In a few decades, things might get so bad that we only have one or two ideologies that everyone follows.
I hope we can turn this around and rid the world of conformity and consistency. Let us rebuke the smooth mediocrity of the times, and hurl in the face of mainstream thought and opinion.29
Let us enter into a state of war with this society of conformity.30
Let us fight by speaking our truth.
"A man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as Monachism, of the hermit Antony [Antony of Lérins, c.468–520 AD]; the Reformation, of [Martin] Luther; Quakerism, of [George] Fox; Methodism, of [John] Wesley; Abolition, of [Thomas] Clarkson [1760-1846]. [Celebrated Roman General, master strategist and nemesis of Rome’s greatest enemy, Hannibal] Scipio, Milton called “the height of Rome;” [in Paradise Lost, Book IX, line 610] and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons."
"Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton?"
"The ‘Scipionism’ of Scipio is precisely that part he could not borrow. Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of [legendary Ancient Greek sculptor of the now lost statue of Zeus at Olympia] Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses, or Dante, but different from all these. Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over-influence. The literature of every nation bears me witness. The English dramatic poets have ‘Shakespearized’ now for two hundred years."
"To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men; that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost; and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."
"The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appears? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin."
"Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom, and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or its absence is all we can affirm. Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed."
"The one thing in the world of value is the active soul; the soul, free, sovereign, active. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although in almost all men obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth and utters truth, or creates."
"Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. 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 eater."
"The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs. For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore, a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The bystanders look askance on him in the public street or in the friend’s parlor. If this aversion had its origin in contempt and resistance like his own, he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs."
"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 our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."
"Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife,—but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth."
"In the long period of his preparation he must betray often an ignorance and shiftlessness in popular arts, incurring the disdain of the able who shoulder him aside. Long he must stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept—how often!—poverty and solitude. For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own, and, of course, the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time, which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed; and the state of virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to society, and especially to educated society. For all this loss and scorn, what offset?"
"The secret of fortune is joy in our hands. Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide: him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it. We solicitously and apologetically caress and celebrate him, because he held on his way and scorned our disapprobation. The gods love him because men hated him. “To the persevering mortal,” said [ancient Persian philosopher] Zoroaster, “the blessed Immortals are swift.”"
"The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them."
"But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, [like the multi-eyed Greek deity Argos] and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity; yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee."
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with the shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you said today."
"Is it so bad, then, 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."
"There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now."
"Books are written on it by thinkers, not by Man Thinking, by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles."
"Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fullness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul. Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say “I think,” “I am,” [like the French philosopher René Descartes who said, “Cogito, ergo sum.”] but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike."
"Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate [like the masses who gained political power during the French Revolution; the three estates being nobles, clergy, and ‘commoners’] with the world and soul. Hence the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees. This is bad; this is worse than it seems."
"Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire."
"Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading."
"The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they; let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius always looks forward. The eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead."
"As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book, or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to contemporaries, or rather to the second age. Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this."
"A man must consider what a blindman’s-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side,—the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation."
"Is it not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be an unit; not to be reckoned one character; not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong; and our opinion predicted geographically, as the north, or the south?"
"I believe man has been wronged; he has wronged himself. He has almost lost the light that can lead him back to his prerogatives. Men are become of no account. Men in history, men in the world of today, are bugs, are spawn, and are called “the mass” and “the herd.” In a century, in a millennium, one or two men; that is to say, one or two approximations to the right state of every man."
"I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency. Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward. Instead of the gong for dinner, let us hear a whistle from the [famously courageous] Spartan fife. Let us never bow and apologize more. A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me. I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind, I would make it true. Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the center of things. Where he is, there is nature. He measures you, and all men, and all events."
"Let us enter into the state of war, and wake [Norse god] Thor [the god of thunder] and Woden [Thor’s father and chief god of the Norse pantheon], courage and constancy, in our Saxon breasts. This is to be done in our smooth times by speaking the truth."