Ian Hesketh | Journal of Victorian Culture
The idea of self-reliance is important not only because it is often taken to be definitive of the ethics of democratic individualism, but because its greatest theorists have been uncommonly forthright about a problem that, though familiar to ordinary civic experience, frequently gets ignored: that self-reliant individuality is a basis for not fully supporting otherwise endorsed social justice causes. This article turns to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bob Dylan who are unusual for so honestly reflecting upon this problem and who, because of the differences in the way they conceptualize it, are instructive for civic ethics. I demonstrate that Emerson and Thoreau imbue their self-reliant withdrawal from social action with a self-satisfaction that is lacking for Dylan, who is much readier to acknowledge the moral costs of self-reliance. This acknowledgement does not invalidate self-reliance but alters its epistemological, ethical and political features, providing a variant of self-reliance more suitable to contemporary conditions.