There is a certain truculence that must figure in the disposition of an independent spirit. He who strays from the approved paths through the forest must be prepared to swing his machete with vigor and persistence at the tangles of vegetation that obstruct his forward movement. He will seek to test the boundaries of the enclosures that surround him, and will always be probing for opportunities to detect fractures and imperfections in their constructions.
In his short biography of the poet Thomas Gray, our friend Samuel Johnson notes that Gray, after having been at Cambridge for about five years, sought the companionship of Horace Walpole for a trip to continental Europe. The two of them meandered through parts of France and Italy, but severed their ties after a falling-out in Florence. Johnson comments astutely on the incident, from which we may extract some general principles:
But unequal friendships are easily dissolved: at Florence they quarreled, and parted; and Mr. Walpole is now content to have it told that it was by his fault. If we look however without prejudice on the world, we shall find that men, whose consciousness of their own merit sets them above the compliances of servility, are apt enough in their association with superiors to watch their own dignity with troublesome and punctilious jealousy, and in the fervour of independence, to exact that attention which they refuse to pay.
Independent spirits guard their autonomy with care, for it is their life’s blood. Bowing and scraping before petty authoritarians grates on their souls, and chisels away at their patience; and it will be only a matter of time before the situation reaches a decisive resolution, one that is always in favor of independence. I remember the same dynamic in the life of Benjamin Franklin. That great man, who exceeds all other Americans in the versatility and brilliance of his accomplishments, manifested a powerfully self-reliant spirit from an early age. He could not long remain under the control of mediocrities. In his Autobiography, he describes the unpleasant experience of serving as an apprentice under his brother James, who managed a newspaper called the New England Courant. Although Franklin is too tactful to say it directly, one gets the sense that brother James was an insufferable martinet, whose plodding meanness took affront to Benjamin’s initiative and enterprise:
Though a brother, he considered himself as my master, and me as his apprentice, and, accordingly, expected the same services from me as he would from another, while I thought he demeaned me too much in some he required of me, who from a brother expected more indulgence. Our disputes were often brought before our father, and I fancy I was either generally in the right, or else a better pleader, because the judgment was generally in my favor. But my brother was passionate, and had often beaten me, which I took extremely amiss; and, thinking my apprenticeship very tedious, I was continually wishing for some opportunity of shortening it, which at length offered in a manner unexpected.
The “manner unexpected” that Franklin references was his brother’s fortuitous arrest by the local authorities. James evidently published something that offended the state assembly, and he was jailed for a month. This intervention of fate provided Franklin with the opportunity he needed to relocate to different pastures; so it is that our problems are sometimes solved for us, rather than by us. Yet this same streak of independence would appear again and again in Franklin’s life; it was one of his controlling personality traits, the instrument that would guide him towards the great discoveries and innovations he accomplished later. When he still a young man in Philadelphia, he was obliged to work for another pettifogging taskmaster, a man named Keimer. This Keimer seemed never to be satisfied with anything the young Franklin did; and the reality, of course, as is always the case in such situations, was that Keimer secretly resented the young man in his employ. Franklin describes how things came to a head with his employer:
But, however serviceable I might be, I found that my services became every day of less importance, as the other hands improved in the business; and when Keimer paid my second quarter’ s wages, he let me know that he felt them too heavy, and thought I should make an abatement. He grew by degrees less civil, put on more of the master, frequently found fault, was captious, and seemed ready for an outbreaking. I went on, nevertheless, with a good deal of patience, thinking that his incumbered circumstances were partly the cause. At length a trifle snapped our connections; for, a great noise happening near the court-house, I put my head out of the window to see what was the matter. Keimer, being in the street, looked up and saw me, called out to me in a loud voice and angry tone to mind my business, adding some reproachful words, that nettled me the more for their publicity, all the neighbors who were looking out on the same occasion being witnesses how I was treated. He came up immediately into the printing-house, continued the quarrel, high words passed on both sides, he gave me the quarter’s warning we had stipulated, expressing a wish that he had not been obliged to so long a warning. I told him his wish was unnecessary, for I would leave him that instant; and so, taking my hat, walked out of doors, desiring Meredith, whom I saw below, to take care of some things I left, and bring them to my lodgings.
Sometimes getting removed from a position, or leaving an unhappy employment, can be the best thing to happen to a man. It frees him from a condition of constant stress and general misery, and opens doors that may previously have been closed to consideration. The independent spirit will always find other job, and discover another path through the brambles; what he cannot survive is the crushing of his spirit. Another example of this can be found in the career of the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam; he was one of the first writers of the modern period to attempt to earn a living solely by his pen. He consistently turned down secure positions at universities or at Europe’s more enlightened courts.
He did so because he felt—rightly, of course—that such positions would come with strings attached, and that would inevitably mean his muzzling. And this was a precondition that Erasmus could not accept, even if it caused him to spend most of his life worrying about money, and shuttling from one haven to another. “He continued to refuse lucrative posts,” says historian Will Durant, “that would have extended his income at the cost of his freedom.” He did accept an invitation from Henry VIII of England to come to England, after the monarch penned him a warm and admiring letter; but after five years, he must have wondered what he was doing at the court of such a dangerously irascible king. So he left. And this illustrates another principle: that the man of merit must not only cherish his independence and peace of mind, but he must also seek out the fraternal association of like-minded men. If our living environment is hostile and oppressive, we must not linger there for long. The bonds of friendship and association are a tonic to great spirits; for they alleviate the mind’s distresses, and remind it that it is not alone in a hostile and uncaring world. Flee from those who drain you, and seek those who sustain you.
Read more in Digest, the complete essays from 2016 to Jan. 2020, covering philosophy, literature, travel, ethics, and history: