Self-Reliance Questions and Answers
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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In "Self-Reliance" by Emerson, how would or how should a person define their place in society?

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According to Emerson, individuals should define their place in society by their own internal values.

To Emerson, no one should have to rely on external verification from religious, social, philosophical, and political institutions to define their worth and purpose in life. During his time, Emerson was accused of atheistic (and, therefore, blasphemous) tendencies. He advocated the rejection of supernatural rationalism, which is the belief that religious truths can only be verified by historical factuality. Instead, Emerson promoted what many of his contemporaries maintain was a sacrilegious reliance on experiential intuition.

In his essay on self-reliance, Emerson argues that intuition constitutes "primary wisdom" in man. He maintains that God himself designed us as vessels of truth. In other words, we can't help but absorb "immense intelligence": after all, we were made to do so. By extension, Emerson argues that whenever "a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,—means, teachers, texts, temples fall." Again, there's the argument that man-made institutions should never define a man's place in society.

Emerson does, however, address his detractors:

The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes.

He maintains that his "intuitive" self-reliance is not blasphemous radicalism or a rejection of convention. Instead, intuition is a means of transcending self and knowing God more fully. In essence, Emerson viewed God as an immanent presence in man: the two are one, and it is man's intuitive powers that allow him to access his Godhood. It is here that Emerson's detractors accuse him of "self-worship."

However, for Emerson, an individual's place in society is not so much self-derived but validated from within. Emerson maintained that he never lost faith in a supreme God; instead, he argued that freedom of the will (and by extension, intellect) constituted true self-reliance. It is this self-reliance that makes man's quest for self-determination possible. He asserted that individuals would never be successful in defining their place in society without cultivating and accessing their God-given insight (intuitive wisdom).

Insist on yourself; never imitate...Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.

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