Is Emerson's notion of "Self-Reliance" a realistic way to live or is it better to try to incorporate some elements of Emerson's ideas into your life?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Ideally, Ralph Waldo Emerson's precepts set down in his essay "Self-Reliance" are wise ones, and ones by which individuals should live.  His mantra of "trust thyself" can well serve all who would not be the slave of others' thoughts, but who will bravely express their ideas and have faith in their own thoughts. For, Emerson exhorts the individual to speak openly, 

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.

Another precept which Emerson strongly advocates is that of hard work. He states, 

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 him no peace.

Certainly, in contemporary times the work ethic advocated by Emerson has often been abandoned and efficiency at the workplace has suffered.  Many complain of lack of job satisfaction, but if they were to work hard each day, perhaps then they would feel rewarded.

Further, it is important to consider Emerson's observation that society is "in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." Society, he contends, demands conformity and exacts a price from those who will not surrender their liberty of thought. How wise Emerson was to have observed the dangers of society and conformity of thought! And, it is because of this demand of society that it often becomes dangerous for the individual to maintain the "integrity of [his/her] own mind." Nevertheless, "[N]othing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind," and people must be non-conformists if they wish to be free and have a free society.

Too often nowadays people conform in order to be accepted by others, or in order to keep one's position in society or at the workplace.  But, as Emerson writes, they have sacrificed "the integrity" of their minds and are no longer free individuals.  At such times that a person must remain silent for fear of losing one's job, etc. it is a commentary upon society and its "conspiracy" as Emerson wrote. If one follows this "opium of custom" that society has for too long, indeed, one sacrifices individuality and will be, at best, discontent.  Therefore, it is ideally better to "go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways."



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