Discuss the themes of individualism and independence in "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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

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In Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance" individualism and independence go hand-in-hand. In this powerful piece, the author challenges us all to be persons of conscience.

Regarding independence, Emerson advises people to have faith in their own thoughts, as other great men have done: Moses, Plato and Milton. These men didn't worry about books, traditions or the opinions of others. Some people miss their own genius, discounting it because it is their own. However, his rejected thoughts may be seen again in the wisdom of others:

In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

The author goes on to speak of individualism—a man must realize that individuality is of the utmost importance. To want to be like someone else is disastrous:

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide.

Nothing of importance can come to a person if borrowed from someone else, but only through things that are unique to him. Not being yourself will rob you of inner-peace. So Emerson reminds us:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.

Emerson points out that young men don't suffer from self-doubt. With the impulsiveness of youth, the young man makes his decisions swiftly and doesn't worry about them. It is the way of the young, but men are not so independent. As soon as he makes up his mind, it is as if a man is imprisoned because of concerns over what others will think.

That which is truly valuable in the world, writes Emerson, comes from within.

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist...Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind.

Emerson insists that he must be true to his nature. Things are often labeled as good or bad, but should be based only on what our own conscience tells us. This echoes Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "...there is nothing either good or / bad, but thinking makes it so." (II.ii.250-251) The essayist offers that we must be "true to ourselves."

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this...

Individualism and independence, Emerson explains, are things we must take for ourselves, not what we should expect from others. He warns that to be unique won't be easy.

For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure.

He explains that another thing that keeps us from our independent thought is a fear to change our minds.

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency...

If you believe something today and change your mind later, you should not worry about it. It is more foolish to stick to the old thought only to please others. Emerson expects us not to speak foolishly but with the conviction of reason and conscience. By changing our minds, people might misunderstand us, but we would then be in good company.

...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. Ah, then...you shall be sure to be misunderstood! Misunderstood! ...Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus...and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Emerson commands that to be his own person and unique, one must never fear what others think.

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