By Ralph Waldo Emerson (1817-1862)
A Study Guide
Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..©
Type Work and Year of Publication
......."Self-Reliance" is an essay that urges readers to trust their own intuition and common sense rather than automatically following popular opinion and conforming to the will of the majority. "Self-Reliance" was published in 1841 in a collection entitled Essays. In 1844, Emerson published a second collection, Essays: Second Series. Consequently, in 1847, he changed the title of the first collection to Essays: First Series.
Trust Your Own Inner Voice
.......Emerson urges his readers to retain the outspokenness of a small child who freely speaks his mind. A child he has not yet been corrupted by adults who tell him to do otherwise. He also urges readers to avoid envying or imitating others viewed as models of perfection; instead, he says, readers should take pride in their own individuality and never be afraid to express their own original ideas. In addition, he says, they should refuse to conform to the ways of the popular culture and its shallow ideals; rather they should live up to their own ideals, even if doing so reaps them criticism and denunciation.
Avoid Consistency as an End in Itself
.......Being consistent is not always wise. An idea or regimen to which you stubbornly cling can become outmoded tomorrow.
.......Emerson uses first-, second-, and third-person point of view. In the opening paragraph of the essay, he first writes in the first person, telling readers about an experience of his. Then, after only three sentences, he switches to second person, as if he is advising a listener sitting across the table from him. Later, in the paragraph, he switches to third person as he presents an exhortation about humankind in general. Following is the first part of the essay, in which Emerson uses all three points of view–first person in black, second person in red, and third person in blue:
.......Among the most notable characteristics of Emerson’s writing style are these: (1) thorough development of his thesis through examples, repetition, and reinforcement; (2) coinage of memorable statements of principle, or aphorisms; (3) frequent references (allusions) to historical and literary figures, such as Socrates, Galileo, Copernicus, Napoleon, Shakespeare, Franklin, Dante, and Scipio (ancient Roman general who defeated Hannibal), who embody qualities Emerson discusses; (4) frequent use of figurative language to make a point, such as “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” (metaphor) and “They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth” (simile).
Because Emerson eschewed imitation (as noted under Theme), he urged Americans to avoid mimicking art and ideas from abroad. He writes:
believed every human being has inborn knowledge that enables him to recognize
and understand moral truth without benefit of knowledge obtained through
the physical senses. Using this inborn knowledge, a gift of God, an individual
can make a moral decision without relying on information gained through
everyday living, education, and experimentation. One may liken this inborn
knowledge to conscience or intuition.
ancient Latin quotation precedes the essay: Ne te quaesiveris extra
(Do not look outside of yourself for the truth.) The Roman satirist
and poet Aulus Persius Flaccus (AD 34-63)—usually
referred to simply as
those words in Book 1, line 7, of his Satires. The quotation is
an apt introductory aphorism for Emerson's essay, for it sums up the central
idea of "Self-Reliance" and the transcendental philosophy behind it: that
one should rely on his own inner voice—his
own intuition and instinct—to make
important decisions and put his life on a righteous path. In other words,
the quotation says, rely on yourself. Emerson follows the Latin
quotation with an English quotation from the epilogue of a verse drama
by playwrights Franics Beaumont and John Fletcher, contemporaries of Shakespeare.
That quotation, which begins with the words Man is his own star,
reinforces the view expressed in the Latin quotation.
Summary of the Essay
.......Please be aware that the following summary condenses the content of “Self-Reliance.” It retains first-person point of view to make the summary more readable and easier to understand. Quotations marks surround the exact wording of Emerson........A man should believe in himself. When he has an original thought, he should embrace it and make it known to others rather than reject it simply because it is his own and therefore unworthy. "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."
.......It is better to exercise the power within yourself than to envy and imitate others. When you are young, you are bold and independent; you assert yourself. You listen to the voice within and express yourself without bias and fear. But as you grow older, you surrender your liberty to society. You want to be like others, act like others. And so you suppress yourself.
.......However, if you want to be a man, you must be a nonconformist. Unfortunately, though, we let others have too much influence over us. These may be men of vanity and malice who take up philanthropic or noble causes–a bigot, for example, who says he supports abolition but keeps black people at a distance. He loves from afar.
.......Many men think virtue is the exception rather than the rule. They perform acts of charity as if they were paying a fine or doing a penance."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."
.......I do not need or want the approval of other men. What I believe I should do is what concerns me, not what other people think I should do. Of course, it is not easy to follow your own inner voice, for there are always those who will try to make you conform to the public will. 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."
.......Conformity turns your life into a lie because in living according to the will of others you are not being true to yourself. To conform, to please others, you put on a false face, smiling when in the presence of people with whom you feel uncomfortable or pretending to be interested in dull conversation.
.......Consistency can also a problem. If you strive to be consistent in all things, you live according to a pattern—a pattern you are afraid to break out of because you are afraid that people will look down on you. Bosh! "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." What if what you said today is not consistent with what you said yesterday? Why, then, people will misunderstand you. But is that so bad? Socrates and Jesus were misunderstood. So were Galileo and Newton and other wise men.
.......I wish we could do away with consistency and conformity. Men who listen to themselves rather than to the common herd are true men. And it is true men who leave their mark on history.
.......If all men became self-reliant, then all of their activities and institutions would be better: religion, education, the way they live, the way they think.
Study Questions and Essay Topics