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Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As one of the leading poets and lecturers of the Transcendentalist movement of the early nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s treatise “Self-Reliance” has attained near-mythic status in American letters. The oft-quoted essay embarks on a revolutionary arc of rhetorical fireworks and maxims intended to imbue the young American nineteenth century American citizen, particularly the young  male citizen with a sense of liberty, freedom, and individualism.

The essay stands today as the most concise encapsulation of Emersonian thought, one which powerfully present s the three main tenets of Emerson’s philosophy and, also, as a controversial manifesto which incited furor among scholars in its time and through to the present era. Though Emerson was, himself, schooled and raised in traditional education and religion his essay chronicling the virtues of  inner-knowledge spoke as if by example:”By ancestry Emerson belonged to the earlier America and to the older religion, but by education and by personal choice he belonged to the new.”  (Carpenter, 1953, p. 3)

                “Self-Reliance” stands, essentially as a “call to arms” for the sanctity and privilege of the individual. However, this dangerous fervor toward individualism can be damagingly misinterpreted when viewed in purely materialistic terms. For Emerson, the freedom of the individual indicated a journey to one’s inner self and capacities, a sojourn to nurture and liberate one’s inner genius. Key to Emerson’s philosophy are three essential concepts: “the three chief tenets of Emersonianism: that man is a particular, an inlet, in a sea of universal mind; that he is to trust himself when he occupies his organic position; and that for whatever befalls him, good or ill, there is an offset, a balance, and a compensation.” (Russell, 1929, p. 206)

            According to Emerson, these precepts of individualism and individual destiny are allowed to find full-expression when a liberation of individual thought has been enabled. This freedom is so key to the entirety of Emerson’s philosophy that it could be considered the foundation of the thought which underlies “Self-Reliance.”

Emerson believed that the liberation of the individual’s mind and freedom of thought would lead them organically to their rightful place in society and to a harmonious state of mind and psychological balance. Emerson goes on to observe that the inner-genius each person possesses was apparent in each individual when they were children, but that social pressures, the educational systems, and damaging belief systems ultimately strangle the inner light of individuals. (Russell)

            Evaluating “Self-Reliance” with the aid of dutiful and prolonged scholarship will easily lead the astute reader to many of the conclusions which Emerson hoped his essay would foster. However, upon its original publication and even now in contemporary times,the essay has been criticized for many of its “double-edged” or ambiguous passages.

When Emerson wrote line s  such as: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” or “Good and bad are but names, very readily transferable to that or this” or “The only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” his words resulted in instigating results Emerson probably would not have intended. Some of the passages in “Self-Reliance” when “isolated, are dangerous weapons to place in the hands of those shrewd and ambitious persons who wish to sink their scruples, and who rejoice to find their individual acquisitions thus seemingly justified and their private desires thus provided with a gospel of rationalization.” (Russell, 1929, p. 208)

            In actuality, Emerson meant to liberate man from his shrewdness and replace that shrewdness and ambition with inspiration and wisdom. He believed that the acquisition of wisdom was the same thing as self-knowledge and this line of revolutionary reasoning provoked those of his age and challenged them, as well as future generations, to examine their own inner-knowledges and inner-light. (Carpenter)


Carpenter, F. I. (1953). Emerson Handbook. New York: Hendricks House.

Russell, P. (1929). Emerson, the Wisest American. New York: Brentano’s.

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