Self-Reliance Questions and Answers
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Does Ralph Waldo Emerson say anything positive about society in his essay "Self-Reliance"?  

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Though Emerson espouses self-reliance as the optimal way of living one's life, early in the essay he urges readers to "accept the place the divine providence has found for you, [and] the society of your contemporaries," suggesting that a higher power puts us among peers that will in some way enrich us. However, Emerson believed that by aligning ourselves with others we actually diminish ourselves.

Overall, Emerson's praise for society is faint. He does allow that it "is civilized." He recognizes that it is "Christianized" and that it supports those among us who are in some way weakened or less capable. He recognizes that society offers unity, but he also observes that each individual that makes up society is eventually replaced by another individual, thus making society a "wave." The man who is replaced takes with him his wisdom and experience, and as a result, society never truly advances.

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sadhguru12 | Student

Though Emerson says many things about society, the foremost being the destruction of individualism due to conformity, he almost says that it can be like a joint-stock company in which the virtue and bread of the shareholder is preserved. “Virtues” he says, “are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule.” Though virtue being the exception in a society, it doesn't stop them from being able to be seen as something positive.

Towards the end of the essay, he states that “society is a wave." and the “persons who make up a nation to-day next year die, and their experience with them.” Though the transitoriness of society may mean it never progresses, the individuals that are apart of the society may benefit from it. In society one may own his own property and be associated with a political party.

rikilynne | Student

Though "Self-Reliance" is predominately focused on one's self, and what a man may become or achieve if he simply trusts himself and his instincts, we can identify subtle, positive references to society. Emerson encourages his readers to accept "the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events." He recognizes that each man is assigned by "the divine providence" people like him, people he can learn from, and along with a group of contemporaries, specific "events" in a man's life connect to make his life what it is. This is, first, a neutral recognition of a man's place in society.

Although, Emerson's main point is that each man must ultimately "trust thyself," and that "society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone if its members," Emerson expounds upon the faint recognition that even nonconformists have contemporaries they relate to. In an attempt to criticize philanthropists in the world, Emerson explains why he does not need to take care of the poor for they "do not belong me and to whom I do not belong." He recognizes that by not belonging to this group, he does, in fact, belong to another group. He mentions " a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold." He is, of course, speaking about other like-minded people, the transcendentalists. Thought this is a small group of other nonconformists, we can ascertain that he looks positively upon this small "society" of people for it is the first group he says he would suffer for in the form of going to prison "if need be."

Moving on through the essay, Emerson spends most of his time criticizing society through her traditions. There is no doubt, he hopes to turn his readers away from a mean life of consistency and conformity. Therefore, to say he is utterly negative about society in all ways, is a simplified analysis of this text. His negative tone is towards consistency and conformity. He insinuates a belief that the members of society have the potential to reach an enlightened independence like him. He claims "I must be myself...and if you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier." He continues to encourage those he knows to be who they are as well and celebrates that "it is alike your interest, and mine, and all men's, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth." So again, Emerson references a "society of contemporaries" for each man. There is some hope of a population of people who seek after their own truths and in turn are "happier" because of this.

All-in-all, Emerson is clearly critical of society. The evidence for his criticisms is not hard to find in the form of logical arguments, anecdotes, and emotional appeals. One must look carefully and dig deep to find any positive references to society, but they do exist, albeit in a subtle manner.