Self-Reliance Summary

"Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an 1841 essay about the importance of pursuing one's own thoughts and intuitions, rather than adhering to public norms.

  • Emerson urges his readers to follow their individual will instead of conforming to social expectations.

  • Emerson draws on examples of historical geniuses—such as Plato and Milton—in arguing for the importance of individualism.

  • Emerson posits the effects of self-reliance: altering religious practices, encouraging Americans to stay at home and develop their own culture, and focusing on individual rather than societal progress.

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Last Updated on April 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1076

In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson begins with a definition of genius, a quality which he says he recently encountered in a poem written by an eminent painter. Genius is to “believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” Moses, Plato, and Milton had this quality of disregarding tradition and speaking their own thoughts, but most people dismiss these thoughts, only to recognize them later in works of acknowledged genius.

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At some point, every individual realizes that “imitation is suicide.” One’s own powers of perception and creativity are the most important gifts, and one can only be happy by putting one’s heart into the work at hand. Great individuals have always accepted their position in the age in which they lived and trusted their own ability to make the best of it. Children, and even animals, also have this enviable power of certitude in their undivided minds.

Society requires conformity from its citizens, but to be a self-reliant individual is to be a nonconformist. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Concepts such as good and evil, with which many people are accustomed to label their thoughts, are meaningless so long as people are true to themselves. Most people are swayed by irrelevant matters, such as how their conduct appears to others. The appearance of virtue is often a penance, which people perform because they think it makes them fit to live in the world, not because it expresses their true natures. It is easy to be independent when one is alone, but the great individual retains the independence of solitude even when surrounded by others.

If one conforms, it is impossible for others to know one’s deeper self. One becomes like a lawyer speaking on someone else’s behalf, and everything one says is predictable and inauthentic. Conformity is tempting, because nonconformity angers others, but also because people want to be consistent, which means sticking to former opinions rather than thinking independently. However, one should not be any more concerned with what one used to think than with what others think now. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson puts it. One should not fear being misunderstood, for this was the fate of many of the greatest individuals in history. “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

An individual should aim to be great on their own terms, rather than trying to gain the approval of others who have achieved greatness. However magnificent a building, book, or work of art may be, one should not be overwhelmed by it but consider it an object to be judged and appreciated. “The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command me, but I am to settle its claims to praise.” People have generally paid great respect to kings, such as Alexander the Great, but the best lesson to learn is not to venerate such people but to adopt their attitude to the world.

The source of the self on which one must rely is generally called Spontaneity, Instinct, or Intuition. It might also be described as the Soul. It is the means by which one may discern justice and wisdom and receive inspiration directly from God, without recourse to texts, teachings, and traditions, which only confuse matters and prevent one from perceiving the truth clearly. People generally do not have the courage of their convictions and prefer to quote some authority rather than saying what they think. Even plants are not so timid: roses are simply themselves, without making any references to former or better roses. To be happy and strong, people must live in the present, as roses do.

The authorities that people quote did not themselves rely on authority. Those like King David lived with God, as everyone else should. The highest truth and the greatest good cannot be learned from books or teachers, and when one encounters them, they will be unfamiliar. Such transcendent matters cannot be expressed in words, which is why the term “self-reliance” is itself inadequate. They cannot be encountered in a mob, either, but require solitude and contemplation. The quiet of a church before the service begins is of more value than the preaching.

Most people think that to reject society’s standards is to reject all standards. However, one’s own standards will be more exacting than popular ethics. There is something godlike in the individual who can trust their own mind completely. The ethics society professes are primarily based on fear, and what it calls prayer is either a begging for favors or an expression of regret.

There is no substitute for self-reliance. Adherence to a creed is merely stultifying, the mindless idolization of classification over content. Educated Americans often think they can improve their minds through travel. However, the men who shaped the societies of Greece and Rome did not travel themselves. “The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home,” as Emerson phrases it. Traveling is a sign of restlessness, and this is as true mentally as it is physically, when Americans seek to imitate European taste. Imitation is always fatal to genius, Emerson insists. “Every great man is unique… Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare.”

Men often pride themselves on the advance of society, but this is an illusion. Society continually changes, but it recedes in one way as quickly as it advances in another and never truly improves. Civilized people have more possessions and learning than savages but less health and strength. The same is true in the moral sphere. The great thinkers of history were individuals and did not create moral progress for the masses, since morality is an individual matter and cannot be taught.

Emerson concludes by saying that most of the things people care about are ultimately unimportant, and relying on them merely demonstrates a failure of self-reliance:

A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.

No external events which are the result of good or bad fortune affect what is essential in the individual. What is vital is to remain true to oneself and follow one’s own principles.

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