Study Guide

Self-Reliance

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-Reliance Characters

Characters

John Adams
Emerson refers to ‘‘great days and victories behind’’ that ‘‘shed a united light,’’ which in turn ‘‘throws ... America into Adams's eye.’’ Emerson may be referring to John Adams (1735-1826), a revolutionary with a combative style who became the second president of the United States.

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was the son of John Adams who became the sixth president of the United States. John Quincy Adams was a friend of Emerson's father and later an outspoken critic of Emerson's transcendentalism.

Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams (1722-1803) was a leader of the American Revolution who later served in Congress.

Gustavus Adolphus
Emerson asks, "Why all this deference to ... Gustavus?’’ He may be referring to Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632), a king of Sweden who reclaimed territory held by Denmark, Russia, and Poland.

Alfred
Emerson asks, "Why all this deference to ... Alfred?’’ He is referring to Alfred the Great (849-899), a Saxon king who kept the Danes from overrunning southwest England. Known for promoting literacy, Alfred valued learning.

Ali ibn-abu-Talib
Emerson quotes Ali (circa 600-661), the son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his acknowledged successor. Ali's sayings had been published in English in 1832.

Anaxagoras
A Greek philosopher of nature, Anaxagoras (circa 500–428 B.C.) discovered that solar eclipses were caused by the moon obscuring the sun. He attributed growth and development of organisms to power of mind. Emerson says that he was a great man.

Anthony
Emerson declares, "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man’’ and lists the hermit Anthony (circa 250-350) as the founder of Monachism, or Christian monasticism. He inherited wealth but renounced it to live a life of Christian asceticism and celibacy. Anthony drew many monks to his hermitages and was later canonized.

Francis Bacon
Recognized by Emerson as an original genius who could have no master, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was a philosopher and statesman whose inductive method of reasoning influenced scientific investigation.

Jeremy Bentham
Listed as one of those with a ‘‘mind of uncommon activity and power,’’ Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English economist, philosopher, and theoretical jurist. With John Stuart Mill, he advocated utilitarianism, the belief that right actions lead to happiness.

Charles Fourier
Listed as one of those with a ‘‘mind of uncommon activity and power,’’ Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was a French social theorist who believed that society could be organized into cooperatives.

Vitus Behring
Emerson gives Vitus Behring as an example of one who accomplished much with simple equipment. A navigator from Denmark, Behring (also spelled Bering; 1680-1741) explored the Siberian coast. The Bering Sea and Bering Strait are named after him.

Chatham
See William Pitt.

Thomas Clarkson
Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was the founder of abolitionism. Clarkson formed the British Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787 with Granville Sharp and worked unstintingly for an end to slavery in Britain. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833.

Nicolaus Copernicus
Listed among the number of great men who have been misunderstood, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was a Polish astronomer. His theory that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system was considered heretical at the time.

George Fox
George Fox (1624-1691) was the founder of Quakerism. Fox was a preacher and missionary who founded the Society of Friends (later called Quakers) in England in 1647.

Sir John Franklin
Emerson mentions British Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) as having the most advanced equipment of the time, in contrast to the equipment available to earlier explorers Henry Hudson and Vitus Behring. Perhaps giving credibility to Emerson's argument that better equipment does not necessarily lead to greater...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)