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Self-Reliance

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English Literature

Originally published in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays, First Series (1841), "Self-Reliance" was a uniquely American contribution to ethical thought. While urging us all to follow our inner voice, Emerson warns against the dangers of conformism and the desire for consistency before proposing major changes in American culture and society if self-reliance is to work. Greatly influential but often misunderstood, many of its most memorable lines are taken out of the larger context of Emerson's thought.

What's the Main Point of 'Self-Reliance'?

The main point of 'Self-Reliance' can be stated in just two words: "Trust thyself."2 Emerson's goal in this essay is to help readers overcome conformity and fear so that they have the confidence to listen to their inner voice.

'Self-Reliance' helped to develop one of the key Transcendentalist ideas: the importance of individual choice and the moral responsibility of the individual. Along with the importance of the natural world, this is one of the most important themes in Transcendentalist thought. 'Self-Reliance' is not simply a piece of advice or self-help, but a work of philosophy that ties in with Emerson's broader ideas about God, nature, humanity, and the self.

Transcendentalism was an early nineteenth-century intellectual movement that emphasized the importance of both the natural world and of individual expression and choice.

A summary of 'Self-Reliance'

Reflecting on the accomplishments of great artists, writers, philosophers, and prophets, Emerson notes that all of them "set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought."2 We all, Emerson suggests, have comparable flashes of brilliant insight, but unlike geniuses, we ignore or suppress them. We all recognize this fact at some point in our lives:

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.2

To envy a great accomplishment is to fail to recognize that you, too, had the potential to do it, and to imitate someone else is to silence your own original self. It is no coincidence that we all arrive at this conviction. Emerson argues elsewhere that humanity, God, and nature are all part of the same essential unity (see the explanations on Nature (1836) and Ralph Waldo Emerson for more details).

God speaks through us, and these flashes of insight happen because our "eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify to that particular ray."2 Why, then, do we ignore the divine voice within us? Emerson blames two forces that silence our inner voice: conformity and consistency.

Conformity is when we ignore our insights because they contradict commonly held beliefs and opinions. Emerson notes that tradition and common opinions often mask bad behavior such as racism and greed, so they cannot be criteria for goodness on their own.

Only we ourselves, not society or institutions, can judge what is good or bad: "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature," Emerson triumphantly states.2 We must learn to ignore tradition and popular opinion when they contradict what we know in our hearts to be true.

Consistency creates the fear that what we say today may contradict something that we have said or done in the past. Emerson dismisses this out of hand, famously quipping that

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.2

Consistency and the desire to be understood confine us to smallness and pettiness. Great actions require inconsistency, which, seen from the perspective of an entire human lifetime, will seem like no more than the tacking of a sailboat—the back and forth zigzag ultimately heading in the right direction.

Self-Reliance A Sailboat StudySmarter

(A Sailboat Tacking, Pixabay.)

A key distinction that Emerson makes is between intuition and tuition. Intuition is "the essence of genius, the essence of virtue, and the essence of life," and is synonymous with instinct. It comes from within us, and so it is "primary." Tuition is anything we are taught by others.2

It is not only the fear of being judged as weird or inconsistent that holds us back, but also an undue reverence for the past, for books, and for authority figures. However, the inspiration for those great books of the past and the inspiration that we feel within us is the same, and the elevation of a ruler or a king is really just an acknowledgement of the capacity of any human being to make their own laws. Our own voices have just as much of a right to be heard as their voices.

There is, however, a place for books and for people of superior virtue. We can benefit from reading history if we see it as a kind of story or fable of what preceded our own "being and becoming."2 We should also recognize that there is a kind of hierarchy of virtue or "souls," and that "Who has more soul than I, masters me...Round him I must revolve by the gravitation of spirits; who has less, I rule with equal facility."2 Emerson thinks of this as a relationship of recognition and respect rather than of domination, obedience, or faith.

Emerson also admits that listening to our selves is not necessarily the only moral criterion that we need to think about. We may also need to consider our obligations to "father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat, and dog," but our ultimate duty is to choose our own obligations.2 If we feel pressure to enter a certain profession or marry a certain person because society or our family demands this of us, we may be simply conforming and ignoring our intuition.

Note that Self-Reliance is not necessarily selfish or self-centered. Emerson thinks we still have obligations to our pets, friends, family, and country. It is up to us to figure out whether those obligations are real.

Emerson gives an example of what a self-reliant person might actually look like: "A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont" who dabbles in everything, from teaching to farming to politics to real estate, but has no fixed career or profession and who "always, like a cat, falls on his feet."2

He contrasts such a person with graduates of elite colleges who feel like failures when they're not immediately successful, or entrepreneurs who consider themselves ruined after their first business venture fails. The sturdy lad clearly comes off favorably in this comparison, and is, according to Emerson, "worth a hundred of these city dolls."2

Self-Reliance Hiker Fall Foliage New Hampshire StudySmarter

(A Lone Hiker in New Hampshire, Pixabay.)

Emerson concludes the essay by noting four changes that must happen if self-reliance is to prevail. First, religion must change. Religion as it is taught and practiced insists that human beings and God are separate things. As a result of this, we not only undervalue ourselves, but we pray to God in a manner that either resembles begging or causes us to focus on our regrets, both of which are unhealthy.

Prayer, according to Emerson, ought to be "the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view."2 Religion also encourages us to simply follow the creeds and beliefs of others, rather than to try to take something useful from them and think for ourselves.

Our tendency to imitate in art and culture is the next major change that will need to happen. We see this in painting, architecture, fashion, and literature which, especially in Emerson's day, was derivative of foreign models and generally focused on the great accomplishments of the past.

However, we all have something new and original to contribute, and if the great masters of the past had not recognized this fact and dared to be original, we would not have their works in the first place. Emerson summarizes his advice in a single, pithy sentence:

Insist on yourself; never imitate.2

In the same vein, Emerson singles out the desire to travel as being particularly harmful to self-reliance. Traveling, Emerson thinks, is a vain attempt to escape from our problems or amuse ourselves. Our problem is with ourselves, not our location, and traveling is simply an attempt to "travel away from [our] selves" and deny this fact.2 The person who visits Greece or Italy hoping to be inspired by their ancient historical sites "carries ruins to ruins."2 Our real goal should be to help make the place where we already find ourselves worth traveling to.

Emerson then singles out our over-reliance on technology as being in need of change. Though Emerson's examples are based on the technology of his time, the points he makes are still applicable in our day—in some cases, even more so than to his. In Emerson, technological advancement entails the loss of some skill or ability: riding in cars, our ability to walk long distances decreases; telling time by clocks, we forget how to tell the time by the position of the sun; writing everything down, our memory atrophies, and so forth.

Great feats of warfare, exploration, and science have been accomplished both with and without the aid of advanced technology. Technological change, then, brings harm as well as good, and so represents no real advancement: "The arts and inventions of each period are only its costumes, and do not invigorate men. The harm of improved machinery may compensate its good."2 We should focus on developing ourselves morally, spiritually, and culturally rather than on engineering the best machines.

For Emerson, Self-Reliance does not mean greed or selfishness. Too much focus on gadgets, things, or money can actually prevent us from understanding and following our intuition.

Finally, our relation to property must change. We have come to identify ourselves with the things that we own, and to judge other people "by what each has, and not by what each is."2 We then come to consider governments, "religious, learned, and civil institutions" primarily as means of protecting our property.2 Property often comes to us by chance, such as good luck, inheritance, or even crime, and we can lose it all just as accidentally (in, e.g. a natural disaster, war, or economic crisis).

The things we own cannot, then, really be what we are, and this confusion about our selves is an obstacle to self-reliance. Emerson calls on us to focus on our "permanent and living property" which "perpetually renews itself" wherever we are and no matter what happens (short of our death). "Nothing" he advises in the essay's concluding sentences, "can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."2

Self-Reliance Eye Money Dollars StudySmarter

(Eye Reflecting Dollar Signs, Pixabay)

Themes in 'Self-Reliance'

  • Individualism: It is a person's inner voice, intuition, or flash of insight, that is responsible for all great acts of courage, virtue, and genius. Trusting this inner voice is what Emerson means by Self-Reliance. Intuition is God speaking through us, and since God is equally a part of us all, we are all equally capable of great things. All we need to do is trust our intuition.

  • Non-Conformity: Self-Reliance requires us to be non-conformists. The opinions of family, friends, colleagues, and teachers, will often contradict our intuition, and we need to stand firm in our convictions, regardless of what others think.
  • Consistency and Understandability: Our intuition does not necessarily follow a logical path, and may require us to contradict things we have said or done in the past. This, according to Emerson, is something we simply need to accept if we are to be Self-Reliant. While a person may not always appear to act consistently or understandably, their decisions will eventually make sense in the context of their entire lives.
  • Greatness: Self-Reliance is a precondition for all acts of greatness, whether they are political, military, literary, artistic, or on the scale of an ordinary human life.
  • Self-Cultivation: In order to make sure that we're really capable of listening to our intuition, we need to develop ourselves spiritually and intellectually. This involves reducing our dependence on the things that we own, and recognizing when things that we have learned have too great an influence on us.

The Importance of 'Self-Reliance'

Written at a point in American history when the nation was still trying to find its own identity, 'Self-Reliance' called on the members of that fledgling nation to stop imitating the intellectual, religious, and artistic models they found in British or European culture and to dare to be original. The ideas expressed in 'Self-Reliance' have a clear resonance with the ideals of independence, individualism, and exceptionalism that would become defining characteristics of American culture, partly thanks to Emerson's writing.

While the impact of the idea of 'Self-Reliance' persists to our own day, its metaphysical and theological underpinnings have been largely forgotten. For many, Self-Reliance has simply become a synonym for greed and selfishness. Author Benjamin Anastas, for example, after characterizing 'Self-Reliance' as "high-flown pap," goes on to blame it for corporate greed, multi-level marketing schemes, and political grandstanding. While Anastas acknowledges some of the finer ethical and metaphysical points of 'Self-Reliance', he ultimately thinks that "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."1

Taken independently of Emerson's belief in metaphysical unity, of a divine voice that can speak through every person, of the need to cultivate the self spiritually and intellectually, to account for our duties to our families and pets, to ease our obsession with greed and materialism, and to reform our education and religion, the call to be self-reliant may indeed sound egotistical and selfish. Unfortunately, Emerson's call to be independent, original, and if need be inconsistent has proven to be a louder one than his call to reform our selves and our society.

Self-Reliance - Key takeaways

  • 'Self-Reliance' is one of Ralph Waldo Emerson's most influential essays. It was first published in his Essays, First Series in 1841.
  • By 'Self-Reliance', Emerson means learning to trust ourselves and listen to our inner voice, which he defines as 'intuition'.
  • Conformity to social expectations is the biggest obstacle to self-reliance. We must be prepared to go against the grain of popular opinion in order to follow our intuition.
  • The desire to be consistent is another obstacle to self-reliance. We must be just as ready to contradict our past selves in order to follow our intuition.
  • For the members of a society to be truly self-reliant, reform is needed in education, religion, and culture. People need to be taught when to think for themselves, and not to rely too much on material possessions, technology, or property.

References

1. Anastas, Benjamin. "The Foul Reign of Emerson's Self-Reliance." The New York Times. (2011).

2. Baym, N. (General Editor). The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B 1820-1865. Norton, (2007).

Self-Reliance

Self-Reliance is the ability to listen to your inner voice or intuition instead of conforming to society's opinion.

Emerson defines Self-Reliance as an ability to listen to your inner voice or intuition without being afraid of what others may think about you. Emerson thinks this is the only way to do anything great.

The main points of Self-Reliance are:

  • We should all listen to our inner voice or intuition.
  • God speaks to all of us through this inner voice, so we can only do anything great by paying attention to it.
  • Conformity and the feeling that we need to be consistent all the time often get in the way of Self-Reliance.
  • We need to reform our religion, culture, and education, as well as check our greed and materialism for Self-Reliance to work.

In the first paragraph of Self-Reliance, Emerson describes "a gleam of light" that we all experience, but that only geniuses dare to believe in the truth of. We, too, are all capable of great things, if only we could believe in the truth of that gleam of light.

According to Emerson, Self-Reliance is one of the most important human virtues. It is only through Self-Reliance that we can do anything great or original. This is true no matter what our profession or station in life.

Final Self-Reliance Quiz

Question

What is the best summary of Self-Reliance?

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Answer

Trust yourself.

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Question

According to Emerson, what separates an average person from a great one?

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Answer

Belief in their inner voice.

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Question

What are the two greatest obstacles to Self-Reliance?

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Answer

Conformity and Consistency

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Question

Finish the quotation: 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

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Answer

adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

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Question

What example of a Self-Reliant person does Emerson give?

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Answer

A sturdy lad from Vermont

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Question

What does Emerson say about our duties to other people?

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Answer

We need to consider them in relation to our intuition.

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Question

Why is Emerson skeptical of technology?

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Answer

He thinks it is both good and bad because it causes us to lose some of our skills.

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Question

Why does Emerson think we need to change our relationship to our property?

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Answer

Because we confuse what we own with who we are.

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Question

What is the ultimate source of our intuition?

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Answer

God

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Question

What  does Emerson use as a metaphor to describe inconsistencies that make sense when viewed in the long run?

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Answer

A sailboat

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Question

Choose two words that complete the quotation: 

"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is _________; that imitation is _______."

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Answer

ignorance, suicide

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Question

What is a negative side of Self-Reliance?

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Answer

It is commonly used to justify selfishness

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