The following passage is taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance," published in 1841 in Essays, First Series. Emerson was born in Boston in 1803. Ordained a Unitarian pastor, he quit the ministry early and devoted himself to a life of letters instead. Beloved nationwide as a lecturer, poet, and essayist, Emerson made Concord his lifelong home and the center of New England Transcendentalism. He died there in 1882.
I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his latest news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, 'Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be goodnatured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.' Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it-else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules [whimpers] and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;-though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
Questions for reflection on this reading:
What does Emerson mean when he says that "your goodness must have some edge to it?"
What is a "wicked dollar"? What does Emerson believe it takes to withhold giving a wicked dollar? What do you believe?
Why does Emerson begrudge giving "to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong"?
Is it right to give only to those to whom you belong or who belong to you?
Can you say to whom you belong?
This material is adapted from
The Civically Engaged Reader,
Adam Davis and Elizabeth Lynn, eds., to be published this August by the Great Books Foundation. © 2006 Great Books Foundation.
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