Rereading Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

When I first read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” in my 11th grade American Literature class, the ideas he presented resonated with me- a teenager searching for identity. The need for individuality stirred inside me and “Self-Reliance” was the perfect doctrine. Like many at that age, I hated conformity and had begun training myself to listen to the voice of my own mind, relying on my own opinions.

As an adult I’ve carried some Emerson-inspired ideals with me, but began feeling that I needed to revisit his concepts. I decided to reread “Self-Reliance” a couple of weeks ago as a sort of self-reset- and to see if his words still resonate with me. They do, although taking a closer look a decade later, I came to realize that the essay is dense, sometimes cluttered, and often paradoxical. Modern society would likely not agree with some of his call-to-actions, but many of his ideas can still inspire.

Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance” in 1841. He lived in Concord, Massachusetts and was a leader in the transcendentalist movement, along with Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Louisa May Alcott. Transcendentalism promotes independence and living outside of society and institutions, in order to be ones purest self. “Self-Reliance”and Emerson’s other essays helped popularize the ideals of the movement.

There has been criticism of Emerson since he began putting his ideas out into the world, Herman Melville among those critics, and some feel that Emerson did not always practice what he preached. Thoreau lived on his own at Walden Pond for two years, but Emerson always lived among society. Regardless, there is still value in the words presented in “Self-Reliance” and it is worth studying.

When I began rereading “Self-Reliance”, it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to digest the thing in a single sitting, so I read it a few pages at a time over the course of a couple weeks. His words can be repetitive and dense at times and I found passages where it took a while for him to arrive at his meaning. Conversely, there are very poignant sentences and passages, which is why the text is so widely quoted. It made me want to break the essay down to those passages and sentences that really get to the core of his beliefs. So, I highlighted the passages that I found most effective and worth further contemplation.


Emerson begins by describing the beauty of original ideas and individual thought, and how that unconventional idea should be spoken-

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -that is genius.”

“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.”

Only you know what you are capable of and the best you can do comes from within-

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”

Don’t let others speak for you and don’t hide who you are-

“We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.”

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.”

Don’t be a conformist-

“Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it.”

“These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint, and inaudible as we enter into the world.”

“Whoso be a man must be a nonconformist.”

What you think is what’s most important-

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”

Live for right now-

“I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.”

“I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady.”

Listen to yourself, even in the company of others-

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

If you join a certain group, party, denomination, etc., are you really thinking for yourself? Can you still be part of a group and be a nonconformist?

“A man must consider what a blindman’s-bluff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.”

Our current culture abhors hypocrisy and inconsistency, but Emerson says forget about that-

“The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint.”

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With Consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow think in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

To clarify the above, he says that if you are true to who you are, you won’t have to worry about this inconsistency-

“In this pleasing contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not.”

“Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.”

The world is as much yours as anyone’s-

“Let a man then know his worth, and keep things under his feet. Let him not peep or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of a charity-boy, a bastard, or an interloper, in the world which exists for him.”

Our lives are one with all things-

“For, the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed.”

We must take into account that everyone has a different view of the world based on experience-

“Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions, or rather much more readily; for they do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing.”

Don’t worship the past or rely on great thinkers of antiquity. Start fresh now with your own ideas-

“The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of soul.”

“Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.”

“But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”

You will know something is good when you believe it is good without confirmation from others-

“When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; -the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience.”

Let nature be an example of self-reliance-

“Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul.”

Separate yourself from societal chaos and be a loner-

“We must go alone. I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

“But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation. At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door, and say, — ‘Come out unto us.’ But keep thy state come not into their confusion.”

Don’t let society write your “to-do” list, decide what is important to you and live by it-

“High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!”

And don’t let society decide your destiny-

“We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.”

Also, accept what fate deals you and don’t wallow, but act accordingly to change it-

“Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will.”

“Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide: him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it.”

Here is one of Emerson’s ideas that may be less popular today. Many of us travel to broaden the mind, explore and experience, but he felt that traveling for entertainment was only a way for people to try to escape themselves-

“The soul is no traveler; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.”

But he does point out that travel is useful in educating yourself-

“I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purpose of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows.”

Be original-

“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.”

Society does not advance, but it also does not stay the same. It continually changes-

“Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken.”

Don’t rely on anything external-

“And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protects it, is the want of self-reliance.”

And finally, rely on yourself for peace and happiness-

“A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of you absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”


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