How does Emerson define self-reliance?

Emerson doesn't actually define self-reliance as such. Nevertheless, from his famous essay of the same name, it's possible to derive three examples of what he actually means by the concept, namely thinking independently, embracing your individuality, and non-conformism.

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As Emerson is preaching a practical way of life, he doesn't elaborate over much on the concept of self-reliance. Instead, he provides us with examples of what self-reliant behavior might look like in reality.

The first such example is thinking independently, or thinking for yourself. Far too many people, according...

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As Emerson is preaching a practical way of life, he doesn't elaborate over much on the concept of self-reliance. Instead, he provides us with examples of what self-reliant behavior might look like in reality.

The first such example is thinking independently, or thinking for yourself. Far too many people, according to Emerson, spend their whole lives hiding behind the opinions of others. Instead of developing their own thoughts, they're quite happy to go along with what everyone else is thinking. This susceptibility to received opinion is dangerous as it makes each and every one of us less of an individual. We shouldn't rely on anyone else for anything, least of all our thoughts.

The second example is related to the first. Self-reliance involves the embracing of one's individuality. For Emerson, the true individual has almost a quasi-divine status. For only the true individual, the genuinely self-reliant individual, is able to realize the majesty of God. The individual, freed from the received opinions of society, has a poetic way of seeing the world. He or she has the remarkable ability to read nature, to understand its divine teachings.

Self-reliance also involves non-conformism. It means doing your own thing, steadfastly refusing to do something just because everyone else is doing it. Emerson passionately believes that only by non-conformity can people become truly, and authentically, human. In such a life, there is no place for consistency:

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.

In the individual mind, there is sanctity. Therefore, if one imitates others—goes with the flow, so to speak—one is guilty of trampling upon something that is sacred.

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