Self-Reliance Questions and Answers
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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In "Self-Reliance," what are the barriers that prevent us from self-reliance according to Emerson?

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Emerson wrote that "[s]ociety everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members" and that a man is "clapped into jail by his consciousness." By this, he meant that the requirements imposed by society—some economic, some social—provide barriers to the full expression of one's individuality and, indeed, his self-reliance. This is because the very nature of society seems to incentivize conformity. In order to be polite, to make a living, or just to be accepted, people follow the popular will rather than the dictates of their own conscience.

Emerson, of course, urges people to do exactly the opposite. He famously exhorts the reader to "trust thyself," to look within for a moral compass, and to act accordingly. Emerson does not downplay the significance to these obstacles to self-actualization. He acknowledges that people who have the courage to act according to the dictates of their own conscience will face the "rage of the cultivated classes." They will also...

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