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In "Self-Reliance," Emerson encourages individualism and nonconformity. His philosophy of individualism is strident and he believes that every individual has an inner genius and that each person should trust that inner self. Emerson's distrust of social institutions stems from what he deems their disingenuous function. He believes men tend to give to charity out of guilt for leading good lives or they do so because they feel the judging eyes of society upon them.
Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world, — as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live.
Emerson is quite serious about being self-reliant and nonconformist. He says he begrudgingly gives to charities at times, which he may do so out of guilt, but if he holds himself to the maxims of this essay, he probably gives to charities because he is an altruist in addition to being an individualist. But since Emerson tries to be “self-reliant” in thought and deed, he must be sure of the reasons why he gives and what that gift might do. He gives when he thinks he should. He does not need any encouragement or approval of anyone else. One could imply that giving to charity encourages those who receive charity to avoid self-reliance and responsibility, (although I think that is an oversimplification, if not in Emerson's context, it certainly is in a modern context.) His point here is that his generosity must come from him; not from any outside influence.
Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.
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