Homina homina homina. The Riff column in The NY Times Magazine has been such a treasure trove this past year. Recent case in point: “The Foul Reign of ‘Self-Reliance’,” in which Benjamin Anastas exposes what he considers to be the havoc wreaked by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal essay on generations of Americans. And while some might say he goes a bit overboard in laying virtually all American self-centeredness at Emerson’s feet, regardless of where it came from – the Garden of Eden or the woods near Concord – his ultimate point about self-reliance being an unassailable (and dangerous) moral and spiritual principle these days is a sympathetic one. And while we certainly wouldn’t advocate for a return to the dehumanizing, pietistic Puritanism to which Emerson was responding, the over-correction must nevertheless be acknowledged, especially for the sake of those who have experienced subjectivity as something of a prison. When extrapolated beyond their context, these ideals play too directly to our innate drive for self-inflation/-deification, essentially institutionalizing the incurvatus in se and conveniently overlooking Emerson’s own moments of humility. Then again, at least it’s honest – about our inexorable drift toward self-justification if not where that drift takes/leaves us. But that’s just, you know, one man’s opinion:

Our [prep-school English] teacher, let’s call him Mr. Sideways, had a windblown air, as if he had just stepped out of an open coupe, and the impenetrable self-confidence of someone who is convinced that he is liked. (He was not.) “Whoso would be a man,” he read aloud to a room full of slouching teenage boys in button-down shirts and ties stained with sloppy Joes from the dining hall, “must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness. . . . Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” And then he let loose the real hokum: “Absolve you to yourself,” he read, “and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

Our teacher had merely fallen under the spell, like countless others before and after, of the most pernicious piece of literature in the American canon. The whim that inspired him to lead a seminar in house-flipping to a stupefied under-age audience was Emerson’s handiwork. “All that Adam had,” he goads in his essay “Nature,” “all that Caesar could, you have and can do.” Oh, the deception! The rank insincerity! It’s just like the Devil in Mutton Chops to promise an orgiastic communion fit for the gods, only to deliver a gospel of “self-conceit so intensely intellectual,” as Melville complained, “that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name.”

Harold Bloom noted, in an article for The Times, that by “‘self-reliance’ Emerson meant the recognition of the God within us, rather than the worship of the Christian godhead.” This is the essay’s greatest virtue for its original audience: it ordained them with an authority to speak what had been reserved for only the powerful, and bowed to no greater human laws, social customs or dictates from the pulpit. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Or: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” Some of the lines are so ingrained in us that we know them by heart. They feel like natural law.

There is a downside to ordaining the self with divine authority, though. We humans are fickle creatures, and natures — however sacred — can mislead us… The larger problem with the essay, and its more lasting legacy as a cornerstone of the American identity, has been Emerson’s tacit endorsement of a radically self-centered worldview. It’s a lot like the Ptolemaic model of the planets that preceded Copernicus; the sun, the moon and the stars revolve around our portable reclining chairs, and whatever contradicts our right to harbor misconceptions — whether it be Birtherism, climate-science denial or the conviction that Trader Joe’s sells good food — is the prattle of the unenlightened majority and can be dismissed out of hand.

This is the problem when the self is endowed with divinity, and it’s a weakness that Emerson acknowledged: if the only measure of greatness is how big an iconoclast you are, then there really is no difference between coming up with the theory of relativity, plugging in an electric guitar, leading a civil rights movement or spending great gobs of your own money to fly a balloon across the Atlantic. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson addresses this potentially fatal flaw to his thinking with a principle he calls “the law of consciousness.” (It is not convincing.) Every one of us has two confessionals, he writes. At the first, we clear our actions in the mirror (a recapitulation of the dictum “trust thyself”). At the second, we consider whether we’ve fulfilled our obligations to our families, neighbors, communities and — here Emerson can’t resist a bit of snark — our cats and dogs. Which confessional is the higher one? To whom do we owe our ultimate allegiance? It’s not even a contest.