Posted by: B Gourley | June 10, 2011

Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” as a Must-read

Let me first note that I am aware of the irony of writing an essay that refers the reader to another essay, which takes as its central theme that one should not pay homage to the thoughts of past great thinkers but rather think for yourself. In that way, I guess the essay entitled Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson is itself ironic. However, the essay does suggest a virtuous approach to living.

Given that this is a martial arts blog, Self-Reliance may seem an unusual topic in that a lot of time and effort in studying martial arts is spent in deference to those who went before – at least in those arts that have a history. However, in the Japanese martial arts, and perhaps more broadly, there is definitely a strain of thought that is consistent with Emerson’s ideas, and it is expressed by the often-stated maxim that one cannot really teach martial arts. This may seem moronic in that we know teachers, and interaction between student and teacher, is essential. Notions that one can teach oneself a martial art from a book or learn through “distance learning” will come as complete nonsense to anyone who has developed the slightest modicum of proficiency in a martial art. Yet, in fact, there is a great truth to the notion that one can’t teach martial arts. Ultimately, the student must do the work, and, increasingly over time, he or she must be aware enough to learn the lessons that cannot be conveyed by words. Furthermore, at an advanced stage, one must take great responsibility for one’s own training, and develop it in a way that is uniquely one’s own.

Some of Emerson’s ideas that I find thought-provoking are:

“If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.”

In the old days, schools kept their techniques secret. Of course, this is no longer the case. One must ask oneself, “If this individual knows the style I practice, will he have the advantage needed to defeat me?”

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Sometimes a technique does not feel right. It does not seem as though it would work. I’m not saying one should abandon such a technique altogether (i.e. arrogantly assume that the lineage got it wrong), but one should take advantage of one’s own faculties to consider how the technique should work, and why it is not. If one cannot figure it out, one may want to put that technique aside for the moment, and not devote intense efforts to doing it poorly.

“Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself.”

I will not elaborate on this further except to return to the point that one cannot really teach martial arts.

“Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.”

Emerson gives a number of examples of skills and abilities that have been lost as new technologies and methodologies took hold. One might reflect upon transition from navigation by heavenly bodies being supplanted by compass and now compass-reading being supplanted by Global Positioning Systems (GPS). For practitioners of kobudo, this is a particularly salient notion. Practitioners of kobudo are always in a struggle against the death of their art. Young people want to learn “Ultimate Fighter” skills, not Feudal Era martial arts. Those who do train in these martial arts live in a society in which they generally spend most of their days in lives that are decidedly disjoint from the conditions in which their art developed. To give another relevant quote from Emerson, “…strike the savage with a broad axe, and in a day or two the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow will send the white man to his grave.” Emerson’s point is that we have lost strength and vitality in a world that values the pursuit of creature comforts.


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