What are themes in Emerson's "Self-Reliance"?

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ktmagalia's profile pic

ktmagalia | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendentalist or one who believes

in the idea that truth resides throughout creation and is grasped intuitively, not rationally,

is known for his philosophical stance against "materialism, institutionalized religion, and slavery." These topics were at the foundation of his speeches and writings.  Along with this philosophy, his stress on individual integrity is reflected in his mantra of "Trust thyself" and is a repeated message in his essay, "Self-Reliance."

This idea is reflected in Emerson's beginning definition of genius:

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.

Continuing with this idea of "to believe your own thought..that is genius", Emerson discusses societal pressure and the importance of self-worth and value, relationship between  the individual and "the divine spirit," the moment of "highest truth" when an individual truly finds peace in the discovery of truth, and the importance of resisting temptation of social pretense when one isn't true to one's self and to each other. All of these ideas come to the telling discovery of "Self-Reliance" in which

Emerson concludes, "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.''

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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."

teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 2) Educator

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Self-reliance in this essay is not about taking care of the externals of life, such as food, shelter, and clothing. Instead, it is about the state of one's soul: Emerson strongly advocates for trusting one's inner promptings and following what they say about one's vocation in life.

Emerson states that a person should be a non-conformist as he embarks on life, not looking to do what is conventional or expected, but rather following what his soul dictates:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.

According to Emerson, each person is born with a destiny implanted in him by God and will be unhappy until he fulfills it. The essay thus argues in favor of individualism: society can impede this, so it is important to cultivate solitude to discern one's true path, then follow that path back into society:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. 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.

One must be original and true to oneself in order to find true contentment in life. Non-conformity doesn't mean just doing whatever you feel like in some hippie-dippy way, but instead means discerning, beneath material gain or the easy way out, what you are meant to do in life and doing it, even it's hard and people criticize you. There is no other way to live to one's highest potential or to find peace:

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

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