In "Self-Reliance," why is self-reliance so difficult to achieve?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is so difficult to achieve self-reliance in today's world, Emerson argues, precisely because society is built in such a way as to encourage individuals not to trust themselves, but to place their trust in external institutions and powers. Emerson argued that self-reliance was all about trusting yourself and your own intuition, and therefore the way that we place such value in things and institutions external to ourselves means that it becomes very difficult to trust ourselves and become self-reliant. Note, for example, the following quote:

Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long that they have come to esteem the religious, learned and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.

Emerson thus argued that our process of valuing has become so misguided and incorrect that we are unable to measure each other and ourselves by what we are as humans, but rather only by the possessions that we have. Society therefore prevents us from seeing ourselves and others for who we really are by the way it places more value on things and possessions rather than character. In the same way, Emerson argued that society teaches and instills within us a natural distrust of our own thoughts and ideas:

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

It is only until we are able to identify and cherish our own thoughts and ideas as being trustworthy and wise that we are able to achieve self-reliance, but, Emerson argued, this involves opposing society and becoming non-conformist, which is a massive challenge that some people never have the courage to take. It is much easier, therefore, to sacrifice one's own freedom and liberty and become a conformist, believing in society, and failing to see how that belief actually stifles us as humans. 

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