By Ralph Waldo Emerson (1817-1862)
A Study Guide
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Promoting Creativity
Notable Quotations
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Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2003
Revised and Enlarged in 2009

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. 

Point of View

.......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:

    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 instil [Emerson's spelling of 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.

.......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).

Promotion of American Creativity 

Because Emerson eschewed imitation (as noted under Theme), he urged Americans to avoid mimicking art and ideas from abroad. He writes: 

    Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and the Distant....Why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model? Beauty, convenience, grandeur of thought, and quaint expression are as near to us as to any, and if the American artist will study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of the government, he will create a house in which all these will find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also.
Emerson and Transcendentalism

.......Emerson 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. 
.......Emerson and others who believed that this inborn knowledge served as a moral guiding force were known as transcendentaliststhat is, they believed that this inner knowledge was a higher, transcendent form of knowledge than that which came through the senses. Because Emerson and his fellow transcendentalists trusted their own inner light as a moral guiding force, they were possessed of a fierce spirit of self-reliance. They were individualists; they liked to make decisions for themselves. If the government adopted a policy or a law that offended their consciences, they generally reacted strongly. 
.......Transcendentalism, as Emerson’s moral philosophy was called, did not originate with him or his fellow transcendentalists in New England but with the German philosopher Emanuel Kant. He used the German word for transcendental to refer to intuitive or innate knowledgeknowledge that is a priori rather than a posteriori.


.......An 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 Persiuswrote 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 voicehis own intuition and instinctto 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 patterna 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.

Notable Quotations From "Self-Reliance"

  • Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
  • Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
  • What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.
  • 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.
  • Travelling is a fool's paradise.
  • Insist on yourself; never imitate.
  • Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.
  • The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.
  • An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.
  • Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will.
  • Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Emerson strongly urges readers to trust their own insight and common sense when making a decision. Is this advice flawed in any way? Consider, for example, that many Americans who trusted in themselves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries argued in favor of slavery and against allowing women to vote. Also, in ancient times, many people sincerely argued that the world was flat. 
  • Write an essay that defends or attacks a stand taken by Emerson in his essay. 
  • Write an essay that explains this statement from "Self-Reliance": A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. . . .
  • If a young man who followed Emerson's thinking enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps today, is it likely that he would become a good soldier who followed orders?