virus: Excerpt from "Self Reliance" (long)

Richard Brodie (
Fri, 28 Feb 1997 17:37:44 -0800

Reed, I am posting this to address your question about how people expect
you to be and what would happen if you changed. I have reworded
Emerson's essay into modern English. Those interested should consult the

[Excerpted from "Self Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited and
updated by Richard Brodie. (C) 1997 Richard Brodie. All Rights

We adults are thrown into jail by our consciousness. As soon as one
thing we say or do gets applauded by others, we're committed. From that
moment on, we're forced to factor the approval or hatred of everyone we
know into everything we do. There is no unlearning this.

If only we could go back to that naive way of being! Imagine someone who
could put aside all his attachments, seeing life again from that same
unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unafraid innocence. He'd be
terrifying! He'd comment on whatever happened, giving opinions that
wouldn't seem like mere points of view, but like the absolute truth. His
words would stick like darts in people's ears and inject them with

Even if these voices of self-reliance reach our ears when we're alone,
they grow faint and inaudible as we go out into the world. Society
everywhere is in a conspiracy against the humanity of every one of its

Society is a publicly held corporation. The stockholders agree, in order
to maximize return on their investment, to sacrifice everyone's liberty
and culture. The most valued ethic is conformity. Self-reliance is its
opposite. The Company Way is not truth and creativity, but labels and

Whoever wants to be human must be a nonconformist. To make a lasting
contribution, you can't be limited by what is labeled good, but instead
explore for yourself if it is good. Nothing is truly sacred but the
integrity of your own mind. Declare yourself honorable to yourself and
the world will rally behind you.

Good deeds, most people would say, are the exception rather than the
rule. You have a man and you have his good deeds. People do these things
labeled virtuous, these acts of courage or charity, like they would pay
a traffic fine to excuse their speeding. They do good deeds as an
apology or justification for the way they live in the world, like paying
high fees to put their parents in a nursing home. Their good deeds are

I don't want to atone-I want to live!

My life is for itself, not for a show. I'd much rather have a life of a
lower pedigree, as long as it's real and permanent, than have it be a
glittering mirage. I want my life to be healthy and enjoyable, not to
require diet and exercise.

Show me firsthand evidence that you are a human being. I deny this
appeal to your actions. I know that for me it makes no difference
whether or not I do things people call virtuous. I can't agree to pay
for a privilege that is my intrinsic right.

As small or few as my talents might be, I actually am, and don't need
any secondary testimony to assure myself or anyone else of that fact.

My duty is to do the things that concern me, not what other people
think. This rule, just as difficult to follow in actual as in
intellectual life, might be the entire difference between great and
small-minded people.

The fact that you'll always find people who think they know what your
duty is better than you do makes it even harder. It's easy to follow the
world's opinion when you're in the world. It's easy to follow your own
when you're alone.

But a great human being is someone who, in the middle of the crowd,
keeps the independence of solitude with perfect grace.

The problem with conforming to causes that have become dead to you is
that is scatters your energy. It uses up your time and blurs the mark
you make on the world.

If you support a dead church, contribute to a dead environmental group,
vote for or against the Democrats or Republicans, throw parties like you
owned a nightclub-I have no idea, through all these filters, who you
are! And of course all that energy is diverted from your true purpose in

But do your life's work, and I'll know you. Do your life's work, and
you'll strengthen yourself.

Let's take a look at what a farce this game of conformity is. In the
first place, as soon as I know your party, I know your party line!

A preacher announces a sermon on the usefulness of one of the teachings
of his church. Don't I know, before he opens his mouth, that he can't
possibly say one original or spontaneous word? Don't I know that with
all the pretense of examining the soundness of the teaching he will do
no such thing? Don't I know that he is committed to look only at one
side, the permitted side, not as a man but as a parish minister?

He is the attorney for the defense. This pretense of being an impartial
judge is the thinnest of facades.

Well, most people have put on one blindfold or another and attached
themselves to one or the other of these communities of opinion. This
conformity doesn't just make them phony in a few ways, authors of a few
lies, but phony in every way. Their every truth is not quite true. Their
two is not the real two, their four not the real four-every word they
say frustrates us and we don't know where to begin to set them straight.

Meanwhile, nature wastes no time dressing us in the prison uniform of
the party to which we attach ourselves.

We start to walk alike, talk alike, and gradually acquire the same sweet
asinine expression.

Now there's a mortifying experience that has caused untold ripples in
history: "the foolish face of praise"-the forced smile we put on
whenever we're in uncomfortable company amid conversation that doesn't
interest us. The muscles, not activated by spontaneity but by some
overriding compulsion, tighten around the outline of the face,
accompanied by a most unpleasant sensation.

For not conforming, the world whips you with disapproval. That's why
you've got to know how to size up a sour face.

Suppose a bystander looks at you suspiciously on the street or in a
friend's house. If this frown originated in contempt and resistance like
your own, you might very well go home with a sad expression yourself.

But the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no
profound meaning: they're put on and taken off according to the way the
wind blows and today's headlines.

The disapproval of the masses is worse than that of Congress or the
university faculty. It's easy enough for a determined, worldly person to
withstand the rage of elitists. Their rage is prim and proper, because
they are timid, being very vulnerable themselves. But when you add the
indignation of the people, when you arouse the ignorant and the poor,
when you make the unthinking brute force that lies at the bottom of
society start to growl and hiss, only the pretext of philanthropy and
religion is all-powerful enough to treat it as a trifle of no concern.

The other terror that scares us from our self-trust is our consistency:
a reverence for our past actions or words. Other people have no other
data for computing our orbit than our past actions, and we hate to
disappoint them.

But why look back over your shoulder? Why drag around this corpse of
your memory, afraid to contradict something you once said in this or
that public place?

Suppose you do contradict yourself-so what?

It seems to be common wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, even
when all you're doing is remembering. Instead, you're supposed to replay
the past to be re-judged by the eyes of the present, always living in a
new day.

You say the kingdom of God is within you. Yet when the divinity of your
soul tries to emerge, you strangle it rather than let it breathe shape
and color so that you may clothe God. Leave your philosophy, as Joseph
left his coat of many colors in the land of the harlot, and run away!

Consistency for its own sake is stupidity-a favorite idiocy of
small-minded politicians, philosophers, and preachers.

A great soul simply has no attachment to consistency. You may as well
worry about your shadow on the wall. Speak your mind now in no uncertain
terms, and tomorrow speak tomorrow's thoughts just as forcefully, even
if it contradicts everything you said today.

Ah, but won't you be sure to be misunderstood? Is it such a big deal to
be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood. So were Socrates, Jesus,
Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and every authentic and wise spirit
that ever took flesh.

To be great is to be misunderstood.

It's impossible to violate your nature. All the varied exploits of your
will are rounded out by the law of your being as the irregularities of
the Andes and the Himalayas are insignificant in the curvature of the

It doesn't matter how you measure or judge someone. A person's character
is like a magic square or a palindrome-read it forward, backward, or
across, and it still spells the same thing.

In my nice house in the woods, which God allows me, if keep a diary of
my honest thoughts day by day, without thinking about the future or the
past, I have no doubt it will turn out symmetrical even though I don't
intend it or notice it. My diary will smell of pines and hum with
insects. The swallow over my windows will interweave the thread or straw
he's carrying in his bill into my web too. We come across as what we
are. Character teaches above our wills.

People think they only show their virtue or vice by overt actions. They
don't see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.

A pattern will emerge in whatever actions you take, as long as each is
taken honestly and naturally in the moment. Born of one mind, the
actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. Their variety
disappears 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 far enough away 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.

Richard Brodie +1.206.688.8600
CEO, Brodie Technology Group, Inc., Bellevue, WA, USA
Do you know what a "meme" is?