“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
When I first read “Self-Reliance,” these words sunk into me, but I must have skimmed the rest of the essay. Emerson’s style and vocabulary put me off, an experience which I attributed to 150 years of drift in the English language. The problem only got worse as I read his other essays: I kept wondering when he would get to the point, or worse, if he had a point worth getting to (see: “English Traits”).
Recently I pulled down from the shelf a used, still-beautiful American Library hardcover collection of Emerson’s works I’d been lugging around, and decided to give him a second chance, starting with “Self-Reliance.” This time, the essay had a more powerful effect. Themes that were obscure before — the challenge to find original thought, Emerson’s pleas for the reader (or perhaps the writer) to avoid conformity — now seemed to apply to my life in unexpected ways.
If I want to be fully human, I need to create my own ideas — I can’t merely adopt ones I find lying around. Coming from Emerson, this otherwise bland message is a sharp reminder that even when I think I’ve worked something out, I still need to maintain the “integrity” of my mind, through the proper care and feeding of my ideas. Take veganism, for example: I can decide, given some evidence and critical thought, to eat a vegan diet, but pretty soon I may start calling myself a vegan, which means opting in to the vegan community. And that is quite a mixed bag, in Emerson’s view. Claiming membership for oneself in such a group poses a problem: what if I act not because I still believe in the shared values of the group, but because I want to continue to belong, to be known as, a vegan? The question evokes Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon, a prison in which the prisoners know they are being watched, but do not know when. A human being living a busy, highly-connected life can find him or herself in this role far too often, I think, and the result is that our actions mean different things than we pretend they do. If we act with the warden on our back, then the meaning and our ultimate experience of our act changes; ideals may become prisons.
All that aside, I can’t claim to be a perfect vegan. After a year or so of trying to eat a vegan diet, I’m enthused and especially happy to live closer to an ideal that Peter Singer originally drove home for me. On some occasions I’ve called myself a vegan and have been called one. But have I been 100% consistent? No. Every once and a while I eat something that I know or suspect has dairy in it. Usually this happens when someone offers me food as a gift, or when I’m at a restaurant and I forget to ask. At these times I have competing values. Sometimes I value generosity from another human being more than I value my decision not to eat animal products. Likewise with waste: I can’t ever send food back; I hate wasting food.
I suspect that the desire to remain consistent in action, despite feeling conflicted, is a problem other vegans face. The world is complex, and we respond to it with principles that sometimes compete. Emerson would probably find that acceptable. The integrity of my mind is more important than achieving 100% consistency. After all, if the primary reason I eat tofu instead of cheese on any given day is that I wish to identify as a vegan, and not because I consider tofu healthier for the planet, then I will have lost my integrity, even if I remained consistent in action. As Emerson wrote, “I ask primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man to his actions.” Not only my actions, but also my intentions, create the evidence that I am truly human.
Of course, what occurs to me as examples of “foolish consistency” may not occur to you. In my day-to-day life I think most about my family, technology, and food politics. A healthy critique of IT industry wisdom would do me good, but not you, perhaps. Instead, I will only encourage you to read “Self-Reliance.” And then, join me in re-reading it, some years from now, after the dust has settled, so that we can snap to attention once again.