Emerson opens this essay by talking about some original ("unconventional") lines he had read by a painter. It is the sentiment, more than the subject of the lines themselves, that leaves an impression (on Emerson and on people in general). He lists other great thinkers and geniuses such as Plato,...
Emerson opens this essay by talking about some original ("unconventional") lines he had read by a painter. It is the sentiment, more than the subject of the lines themselves, that leaves an impression (on Emerson and on people in general). He lists other great thinkers and geniuses such as Plato, Moses, and Milton. Emerson adds that too often we each dismiss our own individual genius. He implore the reader to listen to his/her own inner voice. He adds that we actually recognize our own individual thoughts in the words of such geniuses. These are thoughts we (too often) disregard because they are our own. The sentiment that struck Emerson (regarding the painter's text that he read) is that we all have these individual insights of genius, if only we would listen to the inner voice in each of us.
The first phrase in the third paragraph illustrates Emerson's main theme: "Trust thyself." Emerson notes that younger boys, irresponsible and indifferent to consequences, sometimes say what first comes to their minds. The problem is that as boys become men, they stop acting so spontaneously and start speaking, acting, and thinking according to social customs. This strays from the lesson of trusting one's self.
The individual genius that each man (person) hears fades when we enter society. Emerson champions solitude and the transcendental method of going above and beyond social institutions. Therefore, the truly self-reliant person is a "noncomformist." People are too quick to "capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions." In other words, people are too quick to simply absorb some social worldview. It would be better to think for one's self than to simply accept some social worldview. In this respect, Emerson is also skeptical of tradition and the way it brainwashes subsequent generations.
This self-reliance is not easy. "For non-conformity the world worships you with displeasure." Thinking unlike the majority of the population will make you stand out. Emerson basically says, get used to this. He also says not to worry about sounding odd or inconsistent. In fact, he actually encourages inconsistency. It shows the ability to have different perspectives. Great men/thinkers have historically been misunderstood, so being misunderstood should not cause anxiety. The self-reliant person must be bold enough to ignore social institutions and trust his/herself. Emerson says this is the "nature" of genius.