Is self-reliance possible in contemporary America? If so or if not, what does this say about America and/or a credo of self-reliance? Discuss with reference to Emerson and/or Thoreau.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that living a life of "self- reliance" as Emerson defines it is entirely possible in contemporary America.

Emerson's overriding idea in "Self-Reliance" is for individuals to remain true to their own identity. Emerson writes this directly with phrases such as, ‘‘Insist on yourself," ‘‘Never imitate," and "Trust thyself." These ideas are applicable to contemporary America. There is a profound sense that institutions have broken trust with the public. This disillusion exists in the way that contemporary Americans view business leaders, political figures, religious systems, and even in popular culture. There is no trusted "establishment." Emerson himself identifies this reality as a critical component in his construction of self-reliance: "No government or church can explain a man’s heart to him, and so each individual must resist institutional authority.” Contemporary America is filled with this resistance today. This state of affairs might have created an opportunity for Emerson's definition of self-reliance to emerge. Emerson believes that genius and enlightenment can only be understood when one is willing to be seen as different: "To be great is to be misunderstood."

Given how contemporary Americans might no longer view the wave of institutions as definitive, people might be willing to be viewed as "misunderstood." In order for Emerson's self-reliance to take place, individuals must fervently embrace it. It's not easy. However, with the social fragmentation and questioning that has taken place in contemporary American institutions that used to define identity and the way people act, it might be where Emerson's ideas can be embraced. In order for this to happen, individuals must be willing to strike out on their own. They have to move away from expecting conformist notions of the good to play a role in their own identities. Given where contemporary America is right now, this might be where the possibility of Emerson's self-reliance might exist.

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