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What are themes in Emerson's essay "Self Reliance"Ralph Walso Emerson's "Self-Reliance"

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spongy365 | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted August 25, 2009 at 10:24 AM via web

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What are themes in Emerson's essay "Self Reliance"

Ralph Walso Emerson's "Self-Reliance"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 25, 2009 at 11:00 AM (Answer #1)

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Polonius's advice to Hamlet includes a famous phrase:

...to thy own self be true/And it must follow,as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man (I,iii,78-80)

This advice is the theme of Emerson's "Self-Reliance":  Trust thyself, and value thy own experiences, insights, opinions, and experiences above those presented by society and religion.

Rejecting the Calvinism of his father, Emerson felt that everyone has, not depravity, but a divine uniqueness that allows him to be unselfish and productive:

Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist.....Nothing is at last sacred byt the integrity of your own mind.  Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.

In this passage Emerson also expresses the theme of nonconformity:  "Society is a joint-stock company" in which the members agree to sacrifice the desires of the individual for the safety of the group.

Another theme is originality as opposed to imitation:  "Insist on yourself.  Never imitate."  Emerson perceives society as being in conspiracy against the manhood of all of its members, removing the "integrity of the individual."

These themes are certainly relevant today, with people finding it too comfortable to follow along rather than risk "being misunderstood."

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