In regards to "Self-Reliance," does Emerson value original thought or traditional wisdom more?

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Absolutely, Emerson values original thought much more highly than traditional wisdom.  In this essay, he says, without qualification, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist [....].  Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."  Thus, in order to be "a man," one must actively resist conformity to traditional wisdom, especially when one's conscience or intelligence urges it.  One must, as the title of the essay implies, become self-reliant, trusting one's own mind and its fundamental integrity.  This position makes sense coming from a man who entered the ministry and then left it, preferring to experience his God in nature rather than in a book or a building.  Although nonconformity might make one unpopular -- though it did not with Emerson as he was extremely well loved in his home in Concord, Massachusetts -- he wholeheartedly believed that "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature."  In other words, our own minds must and will supply us with everything we need to live a life of purpose and goodness; we cannot look to traditional wisdom for this.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is no contest.  Emerson values original thought way more than traditional wisdom.  In fact, I'd say he barely values traditional wisdom at all.

The whole point of "Self-Reliance" is that you are supposed to rely on your own conscience.  This is a major idea of Transcendentalism, which was a school of thought that Emerson was part of.  As he says, whoever wants to be a man needs to be a nonconformist.  Emerson thinks that blindly following tradition or societal expectations robs us of our humanity, essentially.

So, Emerson really does not like traditional wisdom, especially if it is followed just because it is traditional.

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