Explain what Emerson means by "envy is ignorance" in "Self-Reliance."

When Emerson describes envy as ignorance in "Self-Reliance," he is saying that anyone who is envious is ignorant of the really important element of life, which is self-determination. If you are self-determined, you will rely upon your own "genius" and never covet that of others.

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The thrust of Emerson's argument in this essay is that self-reliance, or self-determination, is the most important thing a person can possess. If we are self-determined and able to trust in the integrity of our own thoughts, then we will never fail. We should be able to rely upon our own "genius" in order to decide that a course of action is right, and we should not be looking to others to agree with us before we feel security in our own decisions and feelings.

When Emerson says that envy is ignorance, then, he is saying that anyone who feels envy is only ignorant of their own integrity. If a person is truly self-reliant, he will trust in his own feelings, his own value, his own beliefs, and his own understanding. If a person has achieved this state, there would be no need for envy. Envying another person for what they have or think or do means that you have failed to appreciate what you have yourself. Therefore, it could only be because of ignorance that anyone would envy another person.

Emerson is seeking to stimulate his readers to trust their own minds and their own capacity for intelligent thought. He is suggesting that envy is a waste of time and effort because it focuses the mind on wishing to be like other people rather than on celebrating and understanding ourselves.

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The idea of paying mind to the subjective notion of self is a powerfully compelling idea that is featured in Emerson's work.  The notion of envy is the desire to focus the subjective on another individual and within this, Emerson is suggesting that one loses their most elemental quality.  The idea of the subjective voice being the only element that an individual truly owns or possesses is an idea that is very powerful to the Transcendentalists.  These thinkers saw society as a growing cosmopolitan mass where individuals were defining themselves more in competition with one another, and not in distinction with one another.  It is not surprising that the rise of industry was happening as the Transcendentalists were composing their ideas.  Emerson's ideas of being distinctive, heeding the call of the individual, and praising the subjective as an experience with its own intrinsic good are evident in his belief that envy and imitation detract from these notions.


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"Envy is ignorance" because it prevents the development of an individual.  To wish to be like someone else is to deny one's own potential--"suicide"--and, thus, to remain in the darkness of ignorance.  Known for his repeated phrase of "trust thyself," Emerson repudiated the idea of a man's wishing to conform in his envy. 

Emerson's essay, Self-Reliance, begins with what he felt was genius:

To believe your own thought, to believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men--that is genius.

Trusting oneself, and being an individual are genius, the antithesis of envy.  Emerson contends that God has made each person unique with his/her own individual work to do.  Therefore, to trust one's own thoughts and actions is very much like listening to God and acting upon His wishes. 

"Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members."

For Emerson, the importance of the individual is paramount.  "Self-reliance is its [conformity's] aversion."  The integrity of one's mind is what matters, not imitation, not envy.



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Along with the idea of being true to yourself, I would argue that Emerson is also implying something about the nature of envy itself.  We generally are envious of other people, often people that we don't know very much about.

The idea of enying something or someone implies a desire to be in that position but what Emerson makes clear is that one of the main reasons we envy that person or that position is our ignorance.  If we really understood or knew everything about that position, we might no longer want it.

Particularly going along with the idea of being true to one's own ideals and feelings, who knows what we might have to give up to have that thing or to be with that person, etc.  The idea is that if we really knew everything about it, we'd no longer be envious.

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In order to understand this line, let us look at a bit more of the essay -- "your" line and a part that comes after it.  Emerson says that a man has to know

that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion

What Emerson is saying here is one of the major ideas of transcendentalism -- he is saying that you have to be yourself.  Transcendentalists like Emerson belive that people have to obey their own consciences rather than listening to what society tells them to do.  In this quote, Emerson is saying much the same thing.

He is saying that it is dumb to want to be like other people (to envy them).  He is saying that trying to imitate other people is like killing yourself.  He is saying that you have to be content with who you are.

So, the major idea here is that you have to be yourself -- you cannot be what anyone else is or what anyone else thinks you should be.

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