Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In his book titled Essays, “Self-Reliance” follows “History” so that a balanced and self-contained unit can be created out of these two. Abounding with short aphorisms, the essay begins with an admonition to believe in the true self, which is considered in essence identical with the Universal Spirit: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Emerson then holds infancy, which is favorably contrasted with adulthood, as a model for one to follow in the cultivation of a spirit of independence or nonconformity. His metaphorical use of a babe as a model of nonconformity is a radical twist of Christ’s elevation of it as an emblem of total dependence on God.
As does Wordsworth, Emerson regards a person’s growth normally as a process of losing one’s moral sentiment or spirit of nonconformity. Society is considered to have an adverse effect on the growth of each individual’s independent spirit, whereas solitude may contribute to it. Senseless philanthropy, which encourages dependence on outside help, is thus also thought to be detrimental. When Emerson states that one should live by one’s instinct, whether or not it be from the devil, he is attempting to use exaggeration to shock his audience; his idea is that the inherent moral sentiment, which makes one self-sufficient, cannot come from the devil. Total trust in one’s emotions may well result in contradiction when one’s emotions change, however; noting this,...
(The entire section is 493 words.)
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Emerson begins "Self-Reliance" by defining 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.’’ Every educated man, he writes, eventually realizes that ‘‘envy is ignorance" and that he must be truly himself. God has made each person unique and, by extension, given each person a unique work to do, Emerson holds. To trust one's own thoughts and put them into action is, in a very real sense, to hear and act on the voice of God.
Emerson adds that people must seek solitude to hear their own thoughts, because society, by its nature, coerces men to conform. He goes so far as to call society "a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.''
Societal Disapproval and Foolish Consistency
Emerson discusses two factors that discourage people from trusting themselves: societal disapproval and foolish consistency. "For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure,’’ he writes. He quickly dismisses public censure as a "trifle."
To the second factor, foolish consistency, Emerson gives more attention. Perhaps the most familiar and oft-quoted declaration in this essay or in all of Emerson's writing appears here: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.’’ He reassures readers that what appears to be inconsistency and is...
(The entire section is 1057 words.)