In "Self-Reliance," what does Emerson mean when he writes, "that divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not"?

In this excerpt from "Self-Reliance," Emerson is arguing that cluttered adult minds are divided and don't see truth and purpose. They spend too much time calculating the odds of success of what they would like to do.

But the minds of children and animals are different. Their minds are whole, and so they are single-minded in their pursuit of what they want. Children and animals don't conform to anyone. Instead, people conform to them.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his passionate plea for self-reliance, Emerson wants his readers to reacquaint themselves with a sense of childlike wonder about the world. In our state of innocence, we don't overthink anything; we simply go about pursuing our purposes without worrying what everyone else thinks about us. The mind of a child, because it lacks experience, is uncontaminated by doubt. A child has purposes and single-mindedly pursues them. Animals are much the same.

Adults, however, tend to calculate the chances of success before deciding to do something. We weigh up the odds, wondering what other people will do and how they will respond to our plans instead of actually getting on with them. Unlike children and animals, we let odds and calculations sway our determinations. Our decisions to act, therefore, are often determined by external factors instead of our own purposes.

Infancy is so much different from adulthood in this regard. The infant does not conform to anybody; in fact, everyone conforms to the infant. One only has to see a group of adults fussing over a small baby or animal to see this. The child is what they are. The adult, on the other hand, tends to be the creation of other people, which explains why they tend to be conformists.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team