The essay is, above all, a carefully constructed rational argument with the goal of persuading readers to adopt the ideas Emerson promotes. The author uses logic, reasons, facts, and examples to support his position. One example of his use of facts is his reference to two pairs of British explorers to support his argument that advances in technology do not necessarily lead to greater accomplishments. Emerson writes that Henry Hudson and Vitus Behring, who lived in the centuries preceding Emerson's time, achieved great success with equipment much less sophisticated than that used by Sir William Parry and Sir John Franklin, who were famous in Emerson's day. Emerson's contrast here is especially interesting because history bore him out.
While Hudson and Behring's names appear prominently on today's maps to attest to their discoveries, Parry and Franklin are less well-known. In addition, Franklin died six years after the publication of "Self-Reliance" in a failed attempt to find the much sought-after Northwest Passage.
Emerson organizes his ideas so that they lead readers step by step to the conclusion he wishes them to reach. He begins by defining genius. He then explains why he believes that every human being possesses it and goes on to explain how and why this genius is to be expressed—the expression of that inborn genius is the essence of self-reliance.
Emerson's tight rational argument in ‘‘Self-Reliance" is complemented by energetic and passionate language that appeals to readers' emotions. Among the more effective techniques here is the use of images from nature: "My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects’’ and, ‘‘before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less.'' Railing against men's inappropriate feelings of timidity, Emerson accuses them of being "ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose.’’
References to Persons and Literature
‘‘Self-Reliance'' is studded with a multitude of references to famous men and well-known literature. The men mentioned—from ancients to contemporaries of Emerson, from seagoing explorers to philosophers and poets, from the Islamic leader Ali to the founder of Zoroastrianism—are, for the most part, held up as examples of self-reliance and of the greatness it brings. A few of these references are vague enough to leave some question as to exactly which individual Emerson had in mind. The name Adams is mentioned in a context in which it could refer to John, John Quincy, or Samuel. Similarly, Emerson's Gustavus could be Gustavus Adolphus or Gustavus Vasa, both kings of Sweden.
Literary references serve to illustrate or strengthen Emerson's ideas, though some may be obscure to modern readers. To convey that people are unable to forget ideas to which they have pledged themselves in the past, Emerson writes, ‘‘There is no Lethe for this.’’ Lethe, in Greek mythology, is a river of forgetfulness.
There are several biblical references. True to Emerson's belief in subjecting all teaching to individual interpretation, he delights in wrenching these out of context and turning the conventional interpretations upside down. For example, declaring that he will express his true thoughts even if doing so should offend those closest to him, Emerson writes, ‘‘I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me.’’ This is a reference to Matthew 10:37, in which Jesus says,"He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. And he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.'' Emerson simply replaces Jesus' "me" with ‘‘my genius,’’ a substitution that...
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some readers of his time undoubtedly found heretical.
Similarly, the very next sentence is, "I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.’’ This reference is to Exodus 12, in which God tells the Israelites to smear the blood of a sacrificed lamb on their door posts and that this sign will protect them from the coming plague. Emerson conveys that he relies on himself, on his divinely given genius, to protect him from the plagues of life.
Emerson makes more use of figurative language and literary devices than many essayists. He is particularly fond of using various forms of comparison—simile, metaphor, and analogy—to add color to a work whose primary purpose is to persuade. One passage contains several examples:
Men do what is called a good action ... much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily nonappearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world—as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances.
The essay also contains some striking examples of personification: "Malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy,’’ and, ‘‘the centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul.’’
Emerson is considered an American icon of romanticism, a philosophical and literary movement that began in Europe in the early eighteenth century. Emerson's philosophy as expressed in "Self-Reliance’’ largely overlaps the ideas of romanticism, which include the inherent worth of the individual, the importance of personal freedom from religious and social restrictions, and the divinity of nature. French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau was strongly influential in the development of romanticism in Europe, as was the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose work the New England transcendentalists read.