What are the themes in Essay 11 Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson? 

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Emerson's first series of Essays, "Intellect" is the eleventh in the most common order. "Self-Reliance" is perhaps the most famous, most quoted essay. The general themes of "Self-Reliance" encourage individuality and discovering internal (the individual's mind) genius. This coincides with Transcendentalist thought and finds comparable theories of the creative genius of the self with the English Romantic poets. The essay is pro-individualism and anti-conformity. "To be great is to be misunderstood." 

In the essay titled "Intellect," Emerson continues ideas discussed in "Circles" of the self emanating out into the world. He also continues ideas of "Self-Reliance" in that each individual has something to offer, something unique - as long as it is based on individual intellect, not "subdued by the drill of school education." Emerson even goes so far as to suggest that if we met Shakespeare, we would, or should, not feel inferior. While we likely can not produce literature as impressive as Hamlet, we can learn from him as he can learn from us. 

By encouraging the intellect, Emerson encourages spontaneity and initial instinct: that is, thinking prior to any chance of conforming/reforming the intellect in line with popular ideas. Given that Emerson notes that each person is capable of valuable intellect (spontaneous thinking and genuine reflection), he would encourage a person to listen to other individuals, but not to groups or institutions. This theme runs with "Self-Reliance" as well and goes along with his pro-individual/anti-conformist stance.

Emerson wants the individual to learn from history but not be imprisoned in its ideas. Likewise, he wants the individual to trust his/her own intellect but also to be open to learn from others: 

The fate of the poor shepherd, who, blinded and lost in the snow-storm, perishes in a drift within a few feet of his cottage door, is an emblem of the state of man. 

This idea comes back to the notion that, as we can learn from others (and see beyond ourselves as the shepherd could not), we must share our own genius/intellect with others. In order to see the "cottage door," we need to think beyond the historical ideas automatically passed down; we must also be individual but open to the ideas of other individuals. There is no telling if the proverbial "cottage door" is to be found in someone else's story, painting, or communicated thought. In "Intellect," Emerson connects notions of self-reliance, individuality, and engaging with others (as individuals). 

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