Courageous Individualism in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and the Film “Cool Hand Luke” (2003) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

Courageous Individualism in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and the Film “Cool Hand Luke” (2003) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 28, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2003 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 6,300 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 28, 2014


“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson in his renowned treatise, Self-Reliance. For nonconformity, the world also forces you to pave roads in the scorching heat, dig ditches only to fill them again later, and, of course, spend nights in the box. Both Emerson and the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke emphasize the repression and intimidation that a man of greatness encounters in a regimented, entrenched society. Yet both Emerson’s vision of the self-reliant man and the integrity of Lucas Jackson persevere through any and all barriers imposed upon them by the dictates of others. The lessons of individual dignity and the autonomy of one’s mind can be applied to the creator man who seeks to triumph amid the atmosphere of today’s world as well.

Through cultural norms and stigmatization, as well as outright coercive actions, certain societies seek to shackle the men of creativity and initiative. Lucas Jackson is imprisoned in a “corrective road prison” for the grievous crime of cutting off the heads of several public parking meters. The parking meters themselves are symbolic of societal restraint on individual freedom and choice. By arbitrary fiat of local government, the meters place a cap on the duration of time for which an individual can place his car at a particular location, thus limiting the amount of time an individual can spend going about his own business in the vicinity and diverting an individual’s funds into the stagnant coffers of bureaucracy. Luke’s destruction of the parking meters reflects the individualist’s attempt to defy societal restrictions. Though he is drunk and semi-conscious, he nevertheless directs his actions not toward some wanton spree of murder or theft but toward the elimination of a nuisance to individual liberty. In return, society lashes at him with the fullest extent of its brute force, as he is apprehended, arrested, and locked in a facility where his own liberty becomes virtually nil. Even had he murdered, Luke’s ultimate punishment would likely not have been as severe, for the totalitarian environment of the prison will eventually kill him for his adamant individualism.

Luke’s genuine trials begin when he no longer faces the law as applied to free citizens, but the petty whims of his prison bosses. Emerson’s work analyzes the consequences of such a transformation of environment. “It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. But… when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity… to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.” Emerson’s statement was meant as a general social commentary. The dominant-paradigm-entrenched academic or big government advocate may treat the freethinker with aversion, stigma, and heated criticism, which amount to mere grumbling at the sidelines of the individualist’s path. But when the men who wallow and revel in ignorance, sloth, and brutality are invested with the capacity to direct a better man’s fate, the man of reason and initiative will encounter the most infernal conditions possible.

The prison bosses are the most uncultured and sadistic of men outside the Gestapo. Boss Godfrey’s hobby is, put plainly, to shoot things. After Luke’s first escape, Godfrey, with a grim equanimity, blows the head off a rattlesnake in the grass. In the final showdown of the bosses with Luke near the church, Godfrey will with a similarly unperturbed conscience launch a bullet through Luke’s chest. Boss Paul is a man who loves to bring about and witness the writhing and suffering of the prisoners; after Luke’s second escape, Paul orders him to dig a ditch only to conspire with another boss for the latter to periodically come by and inform Luke that forming the ditch is against prison rules. These frequent recurrences of contradictory instructions are accompanied by beatings intended to force Luke down on his knees in utter submission, pleading for mercy. They are ultimately aimed not at his body, but at his spirit, thrusting a rational, aspiring man into a realm of the chaotic, incompatible, unknowable, and savage. This is the lowest of the unintelligent brute force that Emerson addresses, worse than even the hollers and threats of the rabble that occasionally befall a free man.

The unlivable realm of the prison is rendered even more so by the Captain’s mocking friendliness, a façade, with the essence of despotism lying hidden not too deeply underneath. The Captain regularly speaks with a deliberately soothing voice, informing the prisoners that “We are trying to help you here. We are doing this for your own good.” Emerson, viewing the matter from the perspective of the individualist, realizes the gross fallacy of such a claim. He writes, “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.” The Captain is such a man, who holds that the ultimate good is the blind obedience of a regimented automaton to his social engineers. But the Captain’s philosophy on its own is a wobbly construct that would crumble upon meeting the first wind of greatness, were it not reinforced by the fist, the rifle, and the sweat and blood of its prey. When Luke objects to the Captain’s mentality, stating, “You shouldn’t be so kind to me, Captain,” thereby rejecting the Captain’s idea of “help,” he is struck violently to the ground. Then the Captain resumes his tone of mocking kindness, pronouncing, “What we’ve had here is a failure to communicate.” According to the Captain, the man of independence must either renounce it willingly or renounce it through the imposition of societally legitimized brute force. In any case, renounce it he must, and if pseudo-polite paternalistic exhortations fail, the growl and lunge of the worst elements possible in man will bring about the social engineers’ aim.

Few men less deserving than Luke had ever been thrust into such hostile surroundings, from which physical escape will be met with pursuit and mental dissent with the box or the fist. Yet even there, Luke, and Emerson’s vision of the independent spirit, are able to persevere. From the beginning, when Carl lists all the innumerable infractions for which one can be put in the box, Luke is not intimidated. He responds with a relaxed shrug and presents his characteristic Luke smile, then anticipates that Carl’s next sentence will end with “a night in the box.” Carl notices that Luke is not the typical “new meat” prisoner and asks with an authoritative voice, “Well, what have we got here?” Unflinchingly, Luke responds, “We got a Lucas Jackson.” Luke possesses a firm pride in his identity and inherent human dignity, qualities that he will not permit a regimented environment to shatter. Emerson writes: “I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.” Luke epitomizes this philosophy when he neglects to degrade himself to the level of the standard “new meat” prison novice. He refuses to subordinate the fact of his existence to Dragline’s decision to recognize him as a significant member of the prison community. He realizes that he needs not the recognition of others in order to exhibit his self-worth or actualize his potential, but rather that those characteristics flow from within himself.

Initially, Luke’s open defiance of a long-standing prison tradition is met with great indignation and outright aggression on the part of his peers and Dragline. Luke adheres to the expression of the truth as observed by his mind, no matter how controversial, displeasing, or unconventional such honesty may be. Emerson writes, “I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways,” and Luke agrees. When Luke does not hesitate to assert his reason in regard to Dragline’s needless lust-filled commentary concerning a woman he had spotted during a round of work, he encounters the climax of Dragline’s rage. Luke is challenged to a fight, and repeatedly pummeled to the ground. Yet he remains adamant and continues to stand every time, not intending to devastate Dragline so much as to assert that such tactics of brute aggression will not conquer him. Luke recovers from every failure, ever-ready to recover and fight another round. Like the Emersonian man of all professions and opportunities, Luke “always like a cat falls on his feet. He has not once chance, but a hundred chances.” And, using one of those chances, Luke wins the fight in a far more meaningful way than would have been if Dragline were physically subdued. He is able to earn Dragline’s deepest respect through his resiliency, as Dragline realizes that this man of persistence, conviction, and integrity is not a cynical upstart, but rather a valuable potential friend.

Through the firm exercise of his creativity and autonomy, Luke is able to beautify the social conditions of his circle of fellow inmates and earn a general, profound, lasting respect. In order to do this, Luke implicitly recognizes another Emersonian insight: “Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.” If Luke had merely fallen in line with “the way things had always been done” in the prison, he would have encountered the same arduous, scorching, monotonous routine, a condition deliberately intended to stunt his ambitions and aspirations. When the prison bosses “reward” Luke’s gang for exemplary work by delegating to it a colossal road tarring job, Luke encourages his comrades to labor to their fullest capacity and finish the endeavor at a far swifter pace than had been expected of them. He realizes that an intelligent approach that facilitates coordinated activity among the members of the group would both accomplish the task and frame it as a challenge to be aspired toward in the minds of the prisoners. Luke transcends what has been assigned to him and transforms the dull routine into a search for his own objective, leisure time that is immensely difficult to acquire in a road prison. One he establishes the tempo of work, all the other members of his gang gravitate toward his approach and undertake a lively, motivated effort. This is reminiscent of Emerson’s proposition that men will come to admire and uphold the man of intrinsic determination and self-reliance, that, in the grand scheme of events, every institution is but “the lengthened shadow of one man,” the man who dared to introduce a radical change in the way a given matter was approached. Ultimately, not only is the ardor of the assignment alleviated by the workers’ internal drive, but they receive additional leisure afterward to use as they please.

Even as prison conditions become intolerable, Luke does not surrender his will to freedom up to the inevitable climax of the life-or-death struggle between him and his totalitarian overlords. Upon the death of Luke’s mother, the bosses seek to amplify his misery by sentencing him to three nights in the box, intended to decisively strike at his mind while it was still recovering from a blow. Luke realizes that no amount of ingenious coping, no invention of lively leisure activities of poker games, road tarring races, and egg-eating events will conceal the grim realities of the inhuman, whimsical, arbitrary condition imposed upon him. He must, and he will, liberate his body and his mind. After a failed escape attempt, he does not hesitate to stage another, despite the increased vigilance of the bosses. Man of reason that he is, he is able to spot the deficiencies of every one of his plans. The first escape, he is apprehended by a policeman due to the suspicious appearance of his prison clothes. During the second escape, he largely evades “civilized” roadways until he is able to remove his chains and mislead the prison dogs. Nevertheless, he is unable to fully disable his abusers’ means of pursuit. His third escape, co-orchestrated with Dragline, is a brilliantly executed theft of all the prison vehicles’ keys and use of one of the trucks to drive considerably far away from the prison prior to continuing the journey on foot. Every time, Luke is able to, through his autonomous thought, revise his errors and fall on his feet once more. Had he grasped but one more key Emersonian insight, he might have survived in body. “It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner.” Luke’s escape jointly with Dragline is his crucial mistake, for Dragline remains unable to fend for himself when necessity compels the two of them to split up. He lacks Luke’s tactical ingenuity and quickly falls into the hands of the search parties from the prison, leading them to Luke, misled into believing that Luke’s voluntary surrender, and the sparing of his life, could be achieved. Dragline, however well-intentioned, remains a follower, subject to the mercy of higher forces, be it the positive influence of Luke, or the soothing promises of the Captain. Dragline is not of the “class of great men,” in that his longings and hopes had all been derived from his admiration of Luke, not the products of his own mind.

Dragline does not expect his compliance to bring about Luke’s demise, but Luke, true to his nature, cannot bear to accept confinement once more. Instead of blindly subverting himself to the bosses, he proudly steps to the window of the church and announces, echoing the Captain’s one-time words, that “what we’ve had here is a failure to communicate.” Mr. Jackson recognizes that he is not to blame for not falling in line with prison impositions, but rather that the bosses had grossly misjudged his nature by seeking to stifle it “for his own good.” Yet the bosses come not in pursuit of communication, but of blood. Realizing that the individualist always shall overcome every form of degradation and every barrier, the bosses, with Godfrey as their agent, seek to render it impossible for Luke to ever rise again.

Thus ends the life of Lucas Jackson, but not the integrity that characterized it. Dragline realizes that no negotiation, no compromise, between freedom and submission are possible, and lunges at Godfrey, leading to the destruction of the boss’s grim and concealing sunglasses. Before he is imprisoned once more, Dragline at last rises to the level of grasping that, which is beyond persecution. “What the man acquires is living property, which does not wait the beck of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes.” The dauntless innovation and longing for liberty in the autonomous man cannot be dethroned by any physical means; it can only be diminished by a voluntary subordination of the individual’s mind to tyranny, which Luke had refused to accommodate. The legacy of Luke thus lingers on, as he remains, in Dragline’s words, “a natural born world shaker,” whose radiant smile and confident posture remain vivid in the prisoner’s minds. In its own characteristic way, Luke’s greatness has been released from the box and into eternity, as “the triumph of his principles” has at last granted him peace. What remains for the living prisoners is to discover on their own what Luke had known, and rely on his example as a steppingstone, but not a definitive standard, for their autonomous development.

The relevance of Luke’s example and Emerson’s message to the political situation today is of greater magnitude than it has ever been. Today, if parking meters were the only restriction placed on our autonomy, or if a mere widespread facetiousness in human interactions, of the manner that Emerson denounced, had afflicted our society, we would have been living in a comparatively promising and free world. Alas, the scope of our current confinement by far exceeds this.

The government of this country has usurped almost every sphere of human activity, shackling the creative entrepreneurial innovators through “antitrust” laws, restricting the amount of market share a business may through its owners’ skill and the quality of its product acquire. It has erected barriers to the advancement of thoughtful freethinkers by the imposition of affirmative action initiatives that prevent their attainment of education for faults not their own. It has presumed to dictate to businessmen and settlers what forms of land usage are permissible by standard of societal sanction, through laws of eminent domain and environmental preserves that force men to “absolve themselves in the reflex way” not only to their neighbors and the community, but the bureaucrats, the lobbyists, the endangered spotted slugs and numb lifeless rocks. It has imposed a quasi-prison environment on the young people of this country through the encouragement of forced volunteerism, in menial tasks similar to road tarring, within the schools, and the impending fear of the military draft that will make Godfreys of our officers and “new meat” of our boys, which the politicians implicitly advocate by maintaining draft registration. And all disagreement is reduced to virtually naught, since the freethinkers (often prosperous, industrious men) are extorted for gargantuan sums of their income to fund this socialist behemoth. Some of this income is expended in false philanthropy, becoming the “wicked dollar” that Emerson did not wish to give, that is used to uphold in a state of prison-like dependency hordes of welfare recipients who can be counted on to vote in their overlord incumbents and by the sheer volume of their holler overrule all dissent in the passage of the next statist subversion of liberty. And if any of these intelligent voices dissents by refusing to sacrifice his money for causes that will do him harm, the full weight of government retaliation is borne upon him. What can a man of independent convictions and self-reliant disposition do in such a setting, that grows more restrictive by the day?

Henry David Thoreau, Emerson’s friend and fellow thinker, tried the tactic of civil disobedience in defiance of a tax that was used to fund what was in his opinion an unjustified Mexican War. Thoreau was thrown in prison and, though he demonstrated considerable fortitude of conviction, he did not defeat the tax. Emerson’s fellow abolitionist and friend John Brown attempted to, through an armed raid on Harper’s Ferry, unseat an institution of slavery, which was backed by the coercive hand of big government, with only a handful of arms and supporters. He was executed for the attempt, and, though he became a martyr for the abolitionist cause, he did not defeat slavery. Lucas Jackson confronted the nuisance of parking meters with the saw and the cruelties of the prison with escapes. He, too, received a bullet in the chest in the end and failed to eradicate the root of his sufferings. Though all three of those men preserved their dignity intact through their punishments, they did not accomplish their aims, for they overlooked the fact that the complete triumph of individualism requires another approach.

Of the individualist, Emerson writes that “the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him, — and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history. It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.” Emerson advocates not an armed revolution, nor even overt disobedience of the law, but rather a mode of living that exemplifies a man who loves, and takes advantage of, the freedom to use his mind. Emerson did not go to prison for tax evasion; nor did he start a slave revolt; nor would he have decapitated parking meters today. Nevertheless, his ideas and influence have spread to the present day in precisely the manner that he intended. He did not wish to be worshipped as an idol or regarded as an unquestionable sage, but rather to give men a stimulus to more closely examine their habits and the capacities that only they can unleash from within. Rather, he is a thinker who should be analyzed with a critical intelligence, and whose views should serve as useful tools and steppingstones, but not finished products or ends-in-themselves.

Emerson’s key proposition in regard to self-reliance as a vehicle for reform is that voluntary persuasion and personal example can eliminate a societal peril. In a man’s every implicit gesture, he reveals a certain mode of function that is inextricably tied to his nature. “Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.”

A man who opposes the usurpations of government, or the spread of cultural decadence, or the increasing “faraway escapes” that many modern men seek from their lives, must speak firmly and act firmly for the establishment of a freer world where individual creativity is left unbridled. He should not cower for fear that the public will reject his claims simply because he does not hold two and half Ph. Ds in the subject that he addresses. The Ph. Ds themselves are too often handed out by the zealous guardians of the current political and cultural paradigm, the entrenched academic elites who endlessly cite Marx, Roosevelt, and Keynes, and preach “of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations.” If deference to authority and the miserable record of the ages in the political sphere is abandoned, and the clarity and logic of the advocates of freedom is exposed, then, as the fellow inmates reached toward Luke, the public will gravitate toward the new, original, promising thinkers who uphold as their highest value the individual’s intrinsic right to exist and to be let alone. The politicians will abandon their pragmatic give-and-take approach to matters where liberty is at stake, and will realize that only the triumph of solid, uncompromising principles within them will maintain them the support of a reformed constituency.

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