90 Second Book Review: Self Reliance

This book doesn’t need an intro, so I’ll make it short: Self Reliance was one of several essays written by American Transcendentalist movement.  Emerson is also sort of a Socrates to Henry David Thoreau’s Plato.
You can read it online for free, but the specific version I am reviewing here was put together by the Domino Project.  It puts passages from the original text together with excerpts from other authors and famous thinkiers throughout the ages that were trying to make the same point as Emerson.  I’ve read  it several times, but this was an interesting way to read it anew.
As the title implies, the focus of the essay is individuality.  Each time I read it, a new section speaks to me, and this time around it was this one, on the subject of travel as a means of “finding oneself” (spoiler: Emerson is not a fan):

The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

This was an epic summer of travel for me and my family.  I spent all of 4 nights of June in my own bed, and two of those were for less than 6 hours.  We went to Russia, Ireland and New Hamsphire.  And I had business trips to Italy, Germany, China…and Detroit.  Emerson made me think more deeply about the motivation for the voluntary / non-work related trips.  Was I looking to learn something more about myself, or more about the world?  Upon reflection it was definitely the later, so my trips were Emerson-approved.
Emerson has a good point of course.  If you travel hoping to learn about yourself, you are destined to fail.  You have to have a good amount of self knowledge before you take that first step out of your door if you are going to be able to process all that you will experience when travelling through anything roughly approaching an objective lens.  Since everything you experience at home or abroad is perceived through the subjective lens of your personal experience and the narrtive you contstruct around it, having some idea about how that might color things will help you strip some of that away and see things on your travels as they truly are.  Without that, then you are likely to simply reinforce what you already think you know instead of learn something new about the world.
The passage that was paired with this selection is from Pythagorus, and I think the editors did a good job of finding the same idea expressed in a far more company fashion, two thousand years earlier:

No one is free who is not a master of himself.







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