What would you consider to be the three most important points in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance?"

1 Answer | Add Yours

booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

There are many meaningful points made in Emerson's "Self-Reliance," three stand out, and while presented here separately, they all are interrelated—each depending upon the other.

The first is "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.

Emerson states that genius is not only knowing what is true for each of us, but also knowing that the same truth holds fast for all men. He praises the ability of one to have faith in himself. He notes that genius is looking at what we believe and holding to that even if other's criticize us. Each of us is unique:

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. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age...

[*the divine providence: God]

Emerson notes...

...society, by its nature, coerces men to conform.

And so...

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.

Next, Emerson speaks of foolishly conforming for others. As alluded to in the previous point, society criticizes rather than praises those who are different; many people will do anything to please society and remain "consistent" for fear of what society will say if an one changes his mind.

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure...

Society wants all of its parts to be in complete agreement. Emerson dismisses this:

My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle.

In terms of "foolish consistency," Emerson also writes:

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.

Emerson believes that to change one's mind is necessary if one finds reason to do so; to be constant simply for what others will think is nonsense:

...if you would be a man speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon balls, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

Will a man then be misunderstood? Great men of the past, he writes, have been misunderstood: Socrates, Jesus, Luther, etc.

Finally, Emerson speaks also to self-worth. He notes that it is not easy to be your own person, but that a truly great person will turn his back on what society thinks and find his personal value in doing what is right for him, regardless of the opinions of others.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think...It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.

The author says it is easier to conform, but...

...the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

There are other "themes" in this piece, and all seem tied by the need to be unique and satisfied with one's place in life—not to worry about what others believe, but to follow one's heart. And in all, Emerson refers to man's connection to God. God places us in the position we occupy in the world, with the ability to be our best...

...but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.

Emerson insists that individual strength and belief in one's chosen path, will lead us to self-satisfaction, as God would have it.

We’ve answered 317,747 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question