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Emerson’s Idea in Self–Reliance

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Thesis statement: `Self-Reliance` by Ralph Waldo Emerson was influenced by both philosophical and social conditions the era of Romanticism.

  1. General information about Ralph Waldo Emerson
  1. Transcendentalism
  1. Individualism

* Three major divisions

  • The importance of self-reliance (paragraphs 1-17)
  • Self-reliance and the individual (paragraphs 18-32)
  • Self-reliance and society (paragraphs 33-50)

* Emerson’s Ideas

  • Irony of Self-Reliance: An American Response to Nihilism
  • Romanticism
  • Culture of the Common Man

* Influence of “Self-Reliance” in nowadays

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

“Do not follow where the path may lead.

Go, instead, where there is no path, and leave a trail.”

                                               – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Regarded as one of America’s most influential author, poet, philosopher and thinker of the 19th century, RW Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Rev. William Emerson and Ruth Haskins Emerson on the 15th of May, 1803. Ralph lost his father at the tender age of 8. He was seemingly destined to continue his father’s ministerial line when he was enrolled to Boston Latin School. After his father died he went to Harvard University where he graduated just above the middle of a class of 59.

He assisted his brother William in a school for young ladies established in his mother’s house after which he established his own. He lived as schoolmaster for several years before he went to Harvard Divinity School but stopped because of eye trouble. He became pastor of Boston’s Second Church but left in the fall of 1832 because of disputes with church officials over the administration of the Communion service, and misgivings about public prayer. In 1829 Emerson married the seventeen-year-old Ellen Louisa Tucker, who died in 1831 of tuberculosis. His second wife was Lydia Jackson.

In 1832 to 1833, Emerson toured Europe, a trip that he would later write about in English Traits (1856). During this trip, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Emerson maintained a correspondence with Carlyle until the latter’s death in 1881. He served as Carlyle’s agent in the U.S. [1]

In his hometown, Concord, Emerson founded a literary circle called New England Transcendentalism, a hodgepodge of fashionable thoughts, in which participated among others Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Thoreau. Later Emerson became involved in the antislavery movement and worked for women’s rights.

“We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

During the early 19th century in New England, a broad philosophical and literary movement was begun by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It stressed the role of divinity in nature and the individual s intuition, and exalted feeling over reason. It was influenced by the Romantic Movement, as well as the philosophies of Kant and Hegel.

The Transcendentalists can be understood in one sense by their context — by what they were rebelling against, by what they saw as the current situation and therefore by what they were trying to be different from. [2] They are composed mostly of highly educated New Englanders, mostly around Boston. The majority of them lived before the American civil war. Decades after they were advocating literary independence thus creating literature, essays, novels, philosophy, poetry, and other writing that were clearly different from anything from England, France, Germany, or any other European nation.


Individualism holds that the individual is the primary unit of reality and the ultimate standard of value. This view does not deny that societies exist or that people benefit from living in them, but it sees society as a collection of individuals, not something over and above them. [3] It is the philosophy that sees the individual as an end in “himself” and that no person should be sacrificed for the sake of another. It is the outlook that stresses human independence and importance of individual self-reliance and liberty.

  It opposes anything that threatens or interferes with freedom and individual’s choices. It is not synonymous not comparable to selfishness because, “Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.” [4]

 * Three major divisions

  • The importance of self-reliance (paragraphs 1-17)

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. 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. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,–and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. 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.

Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for US than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole Cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

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.

The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preéstablishcd harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.

This paragraph express that the individual should put priority on what he thinks is originally true in his thoughts and in his heart. To believe on the capacity of his own thoughts and to trust his heart, this is described as genius by Emerson. He stresses that whatever is inside a person should manifest in the outside say the individual’s actions or speech. He even mentioned Last Judgment citing that what is on our thought will be recalled to us on this day.

Emerson maintains that an individual should hold his convictions strongly all the time and not just ignore it. It should be clear to oneself because it would be such a disgrace for some other person to identify it for you. The importance of self reliance is that it pertains to a person’s dignity. The individual should take himself as his own for better of worse. He should make the best of what is given to him and not rely on anything coming for free. No one else knows other than himself what power he has in himself and the he will never know what potential he has if he hasn’t tried exploring it.

  • Self-reliance and the individual (paragraphs 18-32)

It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise shall give hint no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope. Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for your the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.

Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and Dark.

What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text, in the face and behavior of children, babes, and even brutes! That divided and rebel mind that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted.

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. So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not to be put by, if it will stand by itself. Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me. Hark! in the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic.

Here Emerson cites that happiness is the fruit when a person exercises self reliance. It brings a soulful kind of joy to the heart, a kind of peace. He mentions early on that God’s work isn’t made without reason. Emerson lectures us all in this part to accept whatever we have and wherever we are, he tells us to take heart and believe in God’s one great plan. In simpler terms he means, we should not wish to be someone else or somewhere else. We are exactly where the Lord’s plan wants us to be.

We should accept the milieu where we found ourselves and trust like a child to the genius of our age. This line evidently shows the impact of Emerson’s current background, the people who moves around him and the circumstances that befalls him and the events that surrounds him. He further speaks about the individual being true to his purpose. There should be no opposition but childlike surrender. He also emphasized that youth should not be belittled because they have been graciously blessed and armed with piquancy and charm and they can stand by themselves to be heard.

  • Self-reliance and society (paragraphs 33-50)

It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary. The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlor what the pit is in the playhouse; independent; irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary ways of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent. troublesome. He numbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you.

But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs. Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not he hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it he goodness. 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. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,–“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.”

I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.

Emerson in this portion speaks how society limits the individual. It obstructs his form of expression, culture and even liberty. He sees society as the evil that kills every person’s creativity and confidence – which he cites an individual must possess. To Emerson this is the healthy state of human nature. He eloquently abhors conformity that society advocates.

He maintains to live and breathe in self reliance. He condones the societies that resist realities and creations. Consciousness to Emerson should not clam a person and hold him tied to people’s expectation, it should be freeing… liberating. He reiterates that there should be nothing more sacred to the individual but the integrity of his own mind. Here he recalls one experience that he had where he was questioned for what he believed in. Again, one can readily read from these sentences how his present environment shapes his thinking.

* Emerson’s Ideas

He might be well respected because of his writings and his philosophy but this doesn’t exempt him and his ideas from being scrutinized.

  • Irony of Self-Reliance: An American Response to Nihilism

In this work by, Alfred I. Tauber investigates Emerson’s religious and philosophic thought, arising from a hodgepodge of philosophies namely neo-Platonism, Vedanticism, German idealism, and Unitarianism. He cites what he terms as Emerson’s religion – a new theology of selfhood. He proselytized the the “divine sufficiency of the individual.” [5] Tauber eloquently assaults Emerson’s basic idea. He explains that because Emerson’s orientation was highly secular, as per Tauber, Emerson emerges as a metaphysician struggling to apply a non-ecclesiastical philosophy to a religious problem. [6] Tauber says that the claims of moral and epistemological agency, or  the very status of the self, coincides with Western consciousness, and cannot be regarded as an issue unique to Emerson’s, or this era.

  • Romanticism

Romanticism has nothing to do with anything “romantic” although some romantic art’s theme depicts love. Romanticism is an artistic, intellectual and philosophical movement in the 18th century that redefines the the fundamental ways in which people in Western cultures thought about themselves and about their world. It is termed as the age of revolution against aristocratic, social, and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment. Enlightenment emphasized the primacy of reason;

Romanticism on the other hand, emphasized imagination and feeling. Enlightenment uses deduction, Romanticism finds knowledge through intuition. Charles Baudelaire defines romanticism: “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” The ideologies and events of the French Revolution are thought to have influenced the movement. Romanticism elevated the achievements of what it perceived as misunderstood heroic individuals and artists that altered society. It also legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority which permitted freedom from classical notions of form in art. [7]

Romanticism can be attributed to have given rise of Transcendentalism.

  • Culture of the Common Man

“Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled; I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. The worst of charity is that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving.

Masses! The calamity is the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only, and no shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking million stockingers or lazzaroni at all. If government knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply population. When it reaches its true law of action, man that is born will be hailed as essential. Away with this hurrah of masses and let us have the considered vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience.” [8]

The selection above is taken from Emerson’s Self-Reliance. Emerson here evidently draws the individual to separate from the masses. He sees the mob as a tragedy. He doesn’t believe in democratic mass and equality among a group of people. As for Emerson the only thing of value is the individual standing on his own honor and conscience.
* Influence of “Self-Reliance” in nowadays

Emerson’s Self-Reliance remains to be influential even up to these days. Aside from the material being used in colleges and universities,      the material is also well circulated amongst scholarly sites. But I guess most redeeming of Self-Reliance influence is that it clearly and concisely addressed a lot of issues that we deal with in our daily lives. His ideas works like an illuminating light in the darkness that we experience from time to time. Emerson’s legacy are the seemingly trivial guideposts but when taken into application greatly impacts our lives.

His advocacy in us trusting ourselves is outstanding. Guess he only wants one thing among individuals, to be great and to realize each of our own potentials. 


[1] “Ralph Waldo Emerson” Wikipedia. 18 Nov. 2006, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Waldo_Emerson>

2 Jone Johnson Lewis, “What is Transcendentalism?”  Women’s History Guide 18 Nov. 2006 <http://womenshistory.about.com/bltranscend.htm>

3 Raymie Stata. “What is Individualism” by ([email protected]) Copyright (C) 1992

4 “Democracy in America,” Volume 2, Book Two, Chapter 2.

5 Alfred I. Tauber. “Emerson and the Irony of Self-reliance: An American Response to Nihilism” 19 Nov. 2006 <http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&lr=&q=cache:4jNqnIUYpZoJ:www.bu.edu/philo/centers/cphs/papers/emerson.pdf+related:4jNqnIUYpZoJ:scholar.google.com/>

6 Ibid.

7 “Romanticism” Wikipedia 19 Nov. 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanticism>

8 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance and Other Essays” A Living Life Fully Publications. New Hampshire, USA 2005


“Democracy in America,” Volume 2, Book Two, Chapter 2.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Early Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” New York, Boston,

        Thomas Y. Crowell & Company: 1899. Introduction by Nathan Haskell Dole.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self Reliance and Other Essays” A Living Life Fully

   Publications. New Hampshire, USA 2005

Porte, Joel. “Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time.” Oxford

        University Press: 1979.

Online References  










Lewis, Jone Johnson. “What is Transcendentalism?” Women’s History Guide


Stata, Raymie. “What is Individualism” by ([email protected])
Copyright (C) 1992



Tauber, Alfred I. “Emerson and the Irony of Self-reliance: An American Response to Nihilism” <http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&lr=&q=cache:4jNqnIUYpZoJ:www.bu.edu/philo/centers/cphs/papers/emerson.pdf+related:4jNqnIUYpZoJ:scholar.google.com/>




[1] “Ralph Waldo Emerson” Wikipedia. 18 Nov. 2006, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Waldo_Emerson>

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