What are the transcendental elements in Emerson's "Self-Reliance"?
In many ways, "Self-Reliance," along with Emerson's other essays, especially "Nature" and "The American Scholar," is a founding text of transcendentalism. That is, all these texts helped to establish the ideas that became known as transcendentalism.
One of these concepts is revealed by the title of the essay itself. Emerson emphasizes total and complete reliance on one's self. According to Emerson, people are bound to obey their conscience above all external dictates. "Trust thyself," he urges his readers, "every heart vibrates to that iron string." He posited that a sense of self-reliance characterized many great men in history, including Socrates and Jesus. It followed that great men were characterized by a sense of individualism that was natural. This individualism was only constrained by society, which was, according to Emerson, "in conspiracy against the manhood of all its members."
For a variety of reasons, participation in society caused people to compromise their beliefs, and Emerson thought this was to be avoided at all costs. His writings urge readers to reject "what the people think" if it is not in accordance with their own beliefs. That this might lead people to be misunderstood Emerson does not deny, but he points out that many great men have been misunderstood. Emerson makes it clear that God has invested every person with a unique inner self, and to act or speak contrary to that self is thus to offend God. The divinity of each individual is the source of Emerson's conviction that obeying one's own conscience will always result in obedience to the will of God. Each of these themes—self-reliance, individualism, and the divinity of the self—was central to transcendentalism, and many others, including the importance of nature, the virtues of originality, and the refusal to conform to society's dictates, were also part of this intellectual movement. For these reasons, "Self-Reliance" is a seminal essay.
Transcendentalism emerged out of Romanticism, a movement which valued the inherent goodness of the individual and felt that civilization corrupted that purity. It also placed faith in intuition over rationalism and exalted nature. The transcendentalist movement grew as well out of the Nonconformist Christianity that dominated New England. These faiths, such as the Congregationalism widespread in Massachusetts or the Quakerism in Rhode Island, emphasized the individual examination of conscience and urged finding the divine spark within. Of course, Transcendentalism also critiqued these faiths for trying to replace the reality of the individual's own religious experience with tradition and authority, and for too much emphasis on sin.
"Self-reliance," we can see, is almost a Transcendentalist manifesto. In it, Emerson strongly advises the young person embarking on life to listen and follow what the divine voice within him is telling him to do. Every person is born with a God-given destiny and will find no real peace until he discovers and heeds that destiny. Nobody should follow a path in life based on tradition or the authority of someone else. Young people should throw away books in favor of nature and find out what life has to offer through direct experience. Nobody should be forced to blossom or choose a path too soon, for nature shows that flowers will bud in their own time. Emerson reveals enormous faith in the inherent goodness of human nature.
Not only does Emerson argue a person will find no lasting peace or happiness until he or she finds his own destiny, he contends that society as a whole becomes a better and richer place if people are set free to rely on their own intuition and divine spark.
Transcendentalism sprung from Romanticism (Idealism) which focuses on individualism. The title of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" stresses individualism, and Emerson continues that theme by focusing on the importance of non-conformity. Near the end of the essay, he lists examples of historical figures whom he viewed as non-conformists (or individualists), men such as Socrates, Jesus, and Galileo.
"Self-Reliance" also promotes relative truth which is a tenet of Transcendentalism. Emerson wants his readers and listeners to seek truth for themselves, to constantly study the world around and to be open to changing their views of what is true.