Choose a metaphor from "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and discuss how this metaphor can be used to understand the essay as a whole.

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The main theme of "Self-Reliance" is that individuals should trust their own judgment and inner conscience rather than rely on the past, tradition, or what others tell them as they seek how to live their lives. A metaphor that supports this is the following:

There is simply the...

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The main theme of "Self-Reliance" is that individuals should trust their own judgment and inner conscience rather than rely on the past, tradition, or what others tell them as they seek how to live their lives. A metaphor that supports this is the following:

There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less.

A simile is a comparison that does not use the words "like" or "as." In the passage above, Emerson is comparing a human life to a rose. A rose, as he writes before this quote, does not rely on tradition or what others tell it to do to survive. It simply unfurls according to its own divine inner light. It intuitively knows exactly what to do at every moment to be its best and most beautiful self.

The metaphor works because we all know how lovely a rose is. We also know that it doesn't rely on learning or tradition to bloom, and we might shudder to think how deformed it might end up if it decided to interfere with its own process of growth and unfurling. Visual metaphors like this one are powerful because they paint vivid pictures in our minds that are more difficult to forget than abstract words. This metaphor encourages us to follow our own calling and trust our own instincts because we recognize how perfectly that works for a rose.

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In "Self-Reliance" Emerson describes society as a "joint-stock company," a company whose stock is owned by several shareholders who each share unlimited liability for the company's debts. Emerson uses this financial metaphor because he thinks it appropriate to describe how citizens in society give up their individuality to become part of a whole, which then dictates what they can or can't do or think. And for an arch individualist like Emerson, that's deeply problematic, to say the least.

Just as the joint-stock company represents a kind of corporate personality, so too does society. A joint-stock company, like society as a whole, is designed to enrich those who conform to its rules. Self-reliant individuals like Emerson, who don't align themselves with the norms and dictates of society, do not belong in such an arrangement and must have nothing to do with it.

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The following metaphor appears in "Self-Reliance:" "These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world." In this metaphor, one's inner voice becomes so soft that we cannot hear it when we are in society. "Voices" stand for our conscience, for what we know is right. When we are swayed by what others think is right, we lose our internal compass. Emerson's essay as a whole is about the importance of listening to one's conscience and following it. He believes that society corrupts this innate sense of what is good and right and that each person must make this determination for him or herself by cultivating and listening to his or her inner voice. Greatness is never achieved, Emerson believes, by copying others; instead, it consists of cultivating what is innate and good in oneself. 

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At the heart of Emerson's famed essay, "Sel-Reliance," is the line,

Every heart vibrates to that iron string.

The metaphor of "iron string" is the innate independence of man which Emerson has established as intrinsic to man earlier in his essay as he alludes to man's infancy and youth which conforms to no one and expresses his young man without compunction.  The voice of independence, Emerson further contends, is that which we hear in solitude, but is quieted by society that is "in conspiracy" against the individual who threatens the security of its culture and power.  Thus, society creates fear in an individual, demanding that he conform.  This conformity, however, works against the "iron string" that is inherent in any man.

Therefore,"Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist" Emerson insists. Indeed, man must respond to the "iron string" of his heart and soul--his transcendent destiny of individualism is he is to live an authentic existence.

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