Self Reliance and Compensation

Doug Anderson, my first and most beloved philosophy teacher . . .  told me that “Self-Reliance” was never to be read by itself, that Emerson had written a sister essay called “Compensation.” He suggested that I read the two in tandem. I did, but it didn’t make sense to me. The two seemed diametrically opposed. In short, “Compensation” argues that no matter how hard you work, no matter how desperately you strive to free yourself from natural or societal constraints, you’ll inevitably fail. Or at least eventually need a break. For the Emerson of “Compensation,” brazen self-assertion was, at best, counterproductive because it failed to recognize something basic about human nature—namely, that it was part of, rather than apart from, the workings of nature. Self-reliance, properly understood, was always situated, ever so carefully, in a wider cosmic order. “Human labor, through all its forms, from the sharpening of a stake to the construction of a city or an epic, is one immense illustration of the perfect compensation of the universe. The absolute balance of Give and Take.            

— John Kaag. American Philosophy