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Listed below are some key tenets of Transcendentalism and an explanation of how "Self-Reliance" demonstrates those beliefs.
1. The physical facts of the natural world are a doorway to the ideal or spiritual world. While Emerson's Nature more thoroughly discusses the importance of learning from the natural world, the philosopher does make some references to the importance of nature in "Self-Reliance," especially in its ability to help humans mature. At the beginning of the essay, Emerson uses the analogy of farming to demonstrate that no corn will grow from a kernel unless one commits physical toil to nurturing it. Emerson views spiritual maturity and independence as the result of physical engagement in the world around us. Similarly, most of the examples of non-conformists alluded to in the essay are men of science (Pythagoras, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton)--men who, according to Emerson, used the natural world to develop their own view of the truth.
2. Self-reliance and individualism are more important than outside authority. In addition to citing men (Jesus, Socrates, and Martin Luther are included in the list referred to in the first point) who bucked against those in authority during their time periods in order to be self-reliant thinkers, Emerson also advises that
"a foolish consistency is the hobglobin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers, and divines."
In order to be self-reliant, a person must not only be willing to be a free thinker, but he or she must be willing to go against those in authority ("statesmen" or religious leaders) if the authority figures are simply promoting ideas for tradition's sake.
3. Intuitive or spontaneous feelings and intuition are superior to rationality. Rather than promoting logic and the rational thinking associated with the era of his predecessors (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson), Emerson tells his readers to trust themselves, not logic or history. He focuses on listening to the heart (feelings) and what one learns in solitude (intuition) instead of giving in to society's "conspiracy" to force individuals into conformity.
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