What does Emerson mean when he writes the aphorism “envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide”?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this essay, Emerson encourages each person to live by their own principles. He exhorts the readers to rely on themselves for their ideas and values and goals, rather than listening to what other people say they should think, value, or strive for. The person who is self-reliant is one who is, ultimately, more mature and happy and satisfied with life than one who fails to listen to themselves and to learn what makes them unique and worthy.

Thus, Emerson says,

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

In other words, this realization only comes once one has reached a certain level of maturity: when we envy another person, we remain in ignorance of ourselves and what we have to offer; further, when we imitate another person, perhaps out of envy, we kill the independent and unique part of ourselves. This is because we are trying to be something we are not.

Each of us must accept who we are—the good and the bad—because we can do nothing real and true and lasting until we work with what gifts each of us is given. We must, to use Emerson's metaphor, till our own plot of ground, developing it and seeing what will grow there. When we try to plant what someone else has planted, so to speak, we do a disservice to our plot. Often, we might be better suited to growing something different, perhaps even something new.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This quote is taken from the essay “Self-Reliance”. “Self-Reliance” is an essay written by the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was first published in 1841. In this essay, Emerson is reflecting on the themes of self-reliance and independence.

Through the quote you are referring to, Emerson highlights the need of people to remain self-reliant and independent. To him, “envy is ignorance” because envy is the desire to have something that somebody else has. Rather than being content with what one has already, envy makes people think negatively about themselves. This weakens their self-confidence. They are ignorant of their own achievements when they envy others. According to Emerson, one can never be truly self-reliant, if one keeps striving for the possessions and achievements of others. Instead of helping a person grow, envy causes ignorance and as a result restricts personal development.

This is the reason why Emerson continues to say that “imitation is suicide.” If a person tries to imitate someone else, then they are losing their own sense of self. They stop being their own independent person. Metaphorically speaking, they are killing their own character, which is why Emerson refers to it as “suicide.” According to Emerson, it is important that people believe in themselves, think freely and independently, and go through their lives without being too heavily influenced by others. Only then will it be possible for people to be truly self-reliant.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The lines quoted from Ralph W. Emerson's "Self-Reliance" are part of a passage about maturity and identity. Emerson is saying that each person comes into a mature sense of self or full adult status when they accept who they are and do not make the mistake of envying another person. We live in ignorance of what is going on inside the other person so it would be an error to be jealous of what we think they have. Each person has unique value and must embrace their uniqueness; "he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion...."

If we turn our efforts toward trying to be someone we are not, we will sacrifice our identity. Because we have the autonomy to blaze our own trail, failure to do so would also be our responsibility. Thus he uses the heavily weighted term suicide, not just death. Emerson goes on to emphasize uniqueness:

The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Emerson, who wrote this in his essay "Self-reliance," is simply saying the following: be yourself. Don't worry about what other people are doing. Don't conform. Do what is right for you.

When he says "envy is ignorance," he means that it is a mistake to be jealous of what another person has or is doing. If you envy another person, it means you are ignorant or unaware of the deepest longings of your own soul. What another person has, or is, has nothing to do with what is right for you. Look inside yourself.

Emerson means the same thing when he writes, "imitation is suicide." When you imitate the life another person is leading, you may not being killing your body, but you are killing your soul. Emerson says that every individual is born with his own unique destiny planted in him by a divine power. Figure out what that destiny is. Follow it, no matter what other people say or do. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team