Self-Trust

2002-11-27

In Ayn Rand's dystopian novel Anthem, the protagonist, who has just escaped from a totalitarian society that has removed the word "I" from human language, writes the following in his journal when he first sees his own face (reflected in a stream, as in the story of Narcissus):

We sat still and we held our breath. For our face and our body were beautiful. Our face was not like the faces of our brothers, for we felt no pity when looking upon it. Our body was not like the bodies of our brothers, for our limbs were straight and thin and hard and strong. And we thought we could trust this being who looked upon us from the stream, and that we had nothing to fear with this being.

Reading that passage some years ago, I was struck by the concept of trusting oneself. It's not an idea one hears very often. Why not? What is the alternative? In the context of Anthem, the alternative was trusting in the collective -- in, that is, the state, which set itself up as a new god that demanded total obedience. Historically, one was supposed to trust in the god of one's people (it's even printed on our money!), in kings and satraps and princes and pharaohs, in the king's representatives, in one's feudal lord, in priests and bishops and medicine men. Women were supposed to trust in their husbands or fathers. Children were supposed to trust in their parents. Slaves were supposed to trust in their masters. And on and on.

One of the plinths of modern society is the democratization of trust: individuals trust other individuals, who are all perceived as (roughly) one's peers. In a social version of the Copernican revolution, modern society broke the chains of hierarchy. But as a precondition for that democratization, one must also to some large degree trust oneself, and assume that other individuals are doing the same. Yet even modern society contains forces that militate against fully trusting oneself. In his essay Self-Reliance, Emerson explores two such forces -- other-directedness and concern for one's reputation:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitide to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude....

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? ...

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.--'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.'--Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

The epigraph to Emerson's essay is "Ne te quaesiveris extra" -- "do not seek outside yourself". This does not mean that one does not love and respect others or work together with them; but it does mean that one is centered enough to not seek one's core self-respect through others, for this is something that no one else can supply. To return to Rand, she also captures this idea later in Anthem (after the hero has rediscovered the word "I"):

I shall choose friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters. And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire. For in the temple of his spirit, each man is alone. Let each man keep his temple untouched and undefiled. Then let him join hands with others if he wishes, but only beyond his holy threshold.


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