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."

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