Obviously this question is best answered by holding the works of Emerson and Thoreau up to comparison. It is well-known that Ralph Waldo Emerson disapproved of Thoreau's decision to go to jail as an act of civil disobedience. Indeed, he disagreed with the idea of civil disobedience itself. But there...
Obviously this question is best answered by holding the works of Emerson and Thoreau up to comparison. It is well-known that Ralph Waldo Emerson disapproved of Thoreau's decision to go to jail as an act of civil disobedience. Indeed, he disagreed with the idea of civil disobedience itself. But there is no doubt that Emerson's concept of self-reliance was to a great extent taken to its logical end-point with Thoreau's concept of civil disobedience. Throughout "Self-Reliance," Emerson advocates non-conformity, self-discipline, and the kind of individualism embodied by the phrase "trust thyself." He claims, in general, that great people throughout history had transcended their society precisely because they followed the dictates of their own conscience. Thoreau agreed with all of that, but sought to understand how an individual could function in a civil society, particularly one that was democratic, when his conscience ran counter to the laws of that society. In other words, in a majoritarian democracy, what was one to do when the majority was wrong? Thoreau's answer was that the state had no authority over a man's soul, and that if a law ran contrary to the dictates of one's conscience, one was under no moral obligation to obey it. This was his rationale for refusing to pay a poll tax, and he served a very short jail term as a consequence. He urged his readers to consider their individual consciences in relation to the law:
[I]f it [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.
So in many ways, Thoreau is living the philosophy of self-reliance, in the sense that he does not look to the state (in America, the people) for guidance as to righteousness. What these two philosophies had in common, then, is that they encouraged people to look inward, to value their own consciences.