“No man is an island.” This is a common phrase used by many people through out the world, but is it true? Early in the history of America was the debate over self-reliance started, however the topic was not given this name until Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about it in the nineteenth century. Self-reliance, according to Webster’s dictionary, is the reliance on one’s own efforts and abilities. Emerson and other transcendentalists, along with Quakers and Deists believed that man should be self-reliant, since God is within each of us. This belief, however, was not held by the Puritans or by Edgar Allan Poe. Support for the for both sides of the argument can been clearly seen in the writings of the Deists, Quakers, Emerson, Poe, and the Puritans.
The first group of people to settle America were the Puritans. These Puritans had strict religious beliefs. One of these beliefs was that ever since Adam ate the apple from the forbidden tree, man is full of sin and any inner feelings are sinful (337). Instead of being pure and perfect, man was seen more as being “at the best a creature frail and vain,?this sinful creature
[man], frail and vain, This lump of wretchedness, of sin and sorrow,” (197; 204-205). Since the Puritans believe that man is evil inside, it is obvious that they think anything which originates from the inner being is also tainted with evil. Thus, man should not be self-reliant since this would lead them to be evil. Puritans believed that instead of listening to themselv2es they should strictly follow the bible, since it dealt with the actions of God.
Edgar Allan Poe, also did not believe in the idea of self-reliance. Poe’s short stories are generally read to give people a taste of the first murder mystery genre. However, if one carefully studies his works it is easy to see how Poe uses his stories as a way to voice his disagreement with the idea of self-reliance. In Poe’s stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the main characters are loners who do not have a lot of contact with the outside world. The actions they perform are usually the result of them trusting themselves. Transcendentalist such as Emerson and Thoreau believe that with the use of self-reliance man could become closer to nature and to God himself, since God was inside each man. However, Poe uses these characters to show the consequence of what could happen if someone listen to just their inner feelings. Poe’s characters all listen to their inner voices and commit acts of pure evil.
However, there are a few groups of people who believe that self-reliance will have positive consequences, and not the negative ones believed by Poe and the Puritans. A group of people who believe that man should be
self-reliant are the Deists. Deists believe that since God made everything in nature, including man, everything must be perfect. In Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography he wrote, “from the attributes of God, his infinite Wisdom, Goodness, and Power [one could] conclude that nothing could possibly be wrong in the [w]orld” (797). Since the Deists believed that man was made perfect they believed that every man was “born a tabula rasa (blank slate),” and was not evil y nature (Handout 1). Man was not created evil, but it was his upbringing and his surroundings that could corrupt him and make him evil. Another belief that Deists have, which encouraged self-reliance, was that nothing to them was right or wrong. The only actions which could be considered bad and avoided were those actions which harmed the natural harmony of the earth. Instead of universal right and wrongs the Deists believed that each individual has their own “moral sense of right and wrong, which,?makes [every man] a part of nature” (929). Franklin believed that with the use of self-reliance man could improve himself in both spiritually and financially. If a man could motivate himself to learn and work then he could achieve a higher level of prosperity.
The Quakers were another group of people who believed that since God made man, man must be pure. One of the biggest fundamentals of the Quaker faith is the belief in the inner light and “speaking”. Quakers believed that within each person was an inner light, which was pure and holy. The inner light was believed to be “a piece of God’s spirit and energy”. With the help of
this energy it was believed that “individuals can form a personal, mystical relationship with God and can use that relationship to support their actions in daily life” (George Fox). Also, during Quaker religious ceremonies, called meetings, people would sit in silence until someone felt God within them. This would cause the person to speak. It was believed that the words spoken were inspired by God and the inner light. Since God was in each individual each act committed by that individual was considered right, thus it was alright for them to be self-reliant.
By far the largest supporter of self-reliance were the transcendentalist and particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau even set out to prove that man could survive by themselves. He moved out to a private farm, Walden, where he lived for a little over two years. While he was at Walden he wrote about the experiences he dealt with and provided proof that man could be self-reliant. Thoreau believed that every man is pure since he was made by God and that whatever man wanted to do he should. He believed that man should not be held to a standard. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away” (2137). Among transcendentalist the most outspoken was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson even entitled a book “Self-Reliance,” in which he discusses the topic. Emerson believes that man is holy and that the “relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to
interpose” (1629). These belief of purity lead to his belief that man should “trust thyself,” for “the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (1623, 1624). Emerson believes that man should listen to his inner self and it will not lead him wrong since whatever he wants to do is what he should do, “no law can be sacred to me but that of my nature” (1624). As a result of this belief, Emerson believes that all a man “must do, is all that concerns [him], not what the people think” (1625). Emerson believes that listening to one’s inner self is the best thing to do since it will not lead one astray. Transcendentalist believed that by relying on oneself, you would become closer to nature and God. Thus, you would be leading a better life than you would if you listened to others.
The issue of self-reliance is one that has been discussed and argued for against from the beginning of American Literature. With people like the Puritans and Edgar Allan Poe arguing that self-reliance would caused the evil within people to come out causing them to commit evil acts. And with people such as the Deists, Quakers, and Transcendentalist leading the argument for self-reliance believing the God is in each man and that by listening to yourself would cause you to achieve a higher status. This argument has been going on has been going on for a while, and it does not look like an end is anywhere in sight.
April 30, 1999
Jones, Paul. “Introduction to Deism”
Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston; 1998