Self-Reliance Essays and Criticism
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Three Reasons Why Emerson's Frequent References to Famous Men Weaken His Argument

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Frequent references to historical figures and famous contemporaries are a hallmark of Emerson's essays, and the technique is prominent in "Self-Reliance.'' Emerson mentions scores of well-known men from a wide range of cultures, eras, and disciplines. Most of the men are named as positive examples of the traits Emerson associates with self-reliance. For example, in a single sentence Emerson names Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton as great men who were unaffected by society's disapproval. A few are given as examples of men who, through no fault of their own, are too much revered—men whose recorded thoughts and passed-down ideas are wrongly used by average people. The biblical David, Jeremiah, and Paul fall into this group. A few men, such as Islam's Caliph Ali and Zoroastrianism's founder, are quoted.

No matter how Emerson employs each one, his purpose in doing so is to strengthen his argument for self-reliance. For more than one reason, however, the use of these examples seems less effective than other means might have been. A few references are so vague that even scholars who study Emerson are not sure to whom they refer. Emerson habitually uses last names only. When he writes, ‘‘That is it which throws ... America into Adams's eye,’’ it is impossible to know which Adams he had in mind: Samuel, John, or John Quincy. Not knowing which Adams, the reader also does not know which trait or idea or action Emerson means to spotlight.

This vagueness occurs a few times and is frustrating but not a major stumbling block to understanding Emerson's central argument. But Emerson' s name-dropping does cause more serious problems. First, there is a logical inconsistency in using this technique in support of the particular argument Emerson is making in this essay. Second, many of the references become increasingly obscure as time marches on. And third, the fact that all those mentioned are men—and overwhelmingly European or white American men—detracts from Emerson's authority, again increasingly with the passage of time. Each of these three problems will now be considered in greater detail.

The logical inconsistency that is inherent in Emerson's leaning upon one famous shoulder after another is the most serious problem and has nothing to do with cultural changes over time. It is simply that Emerson's core argument that readers should ignore the great men of the past and instead trust themselves should prevent him from using the great men of the past to justify his own thinking. Emerson writes, in essence, that Moses, Plato, and Milton were exemplars of self-reliance and are now regarded as great men; therefore readers should follow in their footsteps. But there is a double contradiction here. First, given that Emerson is preaching ‘‘trust thyself,’’ why should he rely on Moses, Plato, and Milton, instead of on himself, to make his point? And second, given that Emerson wants readers to be nonconforming, original individualists, why should they care to become ‘‘great’’; i.e., why should they strive to be highly regarded by society or posterity?

An essayist has many different tools available for the building of an argument. Example is only one such tool; Emerson could have limited himself to other tools, such as reasons or facts, and avoided the awkwardness of using examples to support his argument for living life without examples. If he was determined to use examples, Emerson could have used less problematic ones; he might have used himself or, better yet, his readers as examples of the good results of self-reliance. Emerson could have declared that he himself had followed his principle of self-reliance and had thereby become successful and happy. Or, he could have asked readers to recall occasions when they had trusted themselves and had been proven correct. Either of these would have been a valid example in the context of Emerson's argument, and difficult to contest. But instead of...

(The entire section is 5,544 words.)