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Emerson's Definition and Major Points on Self-Reliance


Emerson defines self-reliance as the reliance on one's own thoughts and intuition rather than conforming to societal expectations. Major points include the importance of individualism, the need for self-trust, and the value of nonconformity. Emerson argues that true self-reliance leads to personal and intellectual independence, fostering a more authentic and fulfilling life.

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What is self-reliance, according to Emerson?

Emerson's notion of self-reliance entails thinking for oneself. This means being independent of thought and action; thinking critically and not fearing ideas that might be contrary to one's own; and, more importantly, trusting one's innate sense of purpose and identity. This is the "iron string" which Emerson says vibrates "every heart." Such trust brings one closer to the Spirit, or God.

Emerson develops this idea in many ways. One example he uses is the "nonchalance of boys," a reference to the unselfconscious way oil which boys evaluate and judge others without concern for consequence. What Emerson admires about the boys is their ability to act without self-doubt; this quality is at the core of his statement that "whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist."

Indeed, conforming—shaping one's actions and opinions to match the prevailing preferences of society—is the opposite of self-reliance. The self-reliant person, then, is in some measure always in opposition to the culture at large. This idea extends to the notion of virtue, which in many cases Emerson sees as a kind of pose or capitulation to society.

As Emerson says, "what I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think." True virtue arises from the authentic self. It takes courage, Emerson says, to think outside of the mainstream in this way, but it is through a vigorous commitment to one's own nature that one best understands his connection to God.

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What are the requisites for the quality of self-reliance in Emerson's "Self-Reliance"?

The main requisite for self-reliance is to trust yourself. One must be willing to avoid conformity and avoid subscribing automatically to social traditions and institutions. A self-reliant person trusts his/her own inner voice and is not afraid to speak and act according to that inner consciousness, even if that means challenging others' fixed notions of acceptable behavior and thought. This essay is Emerson's manifesto in favor of individualism. He is simply establishing a mantra of how to be a genuine individual and this requires a willingness to trust one's self and a willingness to go against tradition and/or popular thinking. 

Emerson believed that when an individual is truly genuine, he/she will do what God intended. The reason is that Emerson believed that each person was a unique individual as deemed by God. Another requisite is for the individual to realize his/her uniqueness. Therefore, embracing one's individuality is not selfish; it is righteous. 

As Emerson implored the individual to avoid conforming to society's traditions, he also encouraged the individual to be willing to divert from his/her own personal past decisions and beliefs if the situation calls for it. In other words, if I have been a lifelong democrat, I should be willing to entertain other forms of government as situations arise. I shouldn't become mired and fixed in a frozen set of beliefs. 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. 

Since Emerson believes that genuine individualism, genuine self-reliance, is divinely unique in each person, he encourages spontaneity, instinct, and a trust in intuition. 

Emerson encourages men to be original. Originality is another requisite. Thus, they should trust their instincts and what they've learned through reason and introspection. A man/person should state his thoughts with confidence rather than hide behind the words of some historical thinker. That is imitation and it is a kind of conformity. 

Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage. 

The self-reliant individual should therefore, not rely on a way of thinking or a path previously established by some one else, some institutional system of thought, nor even his/her own past paths: 

When good is near you, when you have life yourself,--it is not by any known or appointed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;--the way, the thought, the good shall be wholly strange and new. 

So, even when an individual determines a "good" course of action (as universal and unchanging as "good" seems to mean), the self-reliant individual will find/create/discover a new method of achieving such goodness. This is the uniqueness, self-trust, and originality Emerson believes the self-reliant person expresses. 

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What are the requisites for self-reliance?

Emerson would suggest that one of the basic requisites needed for self- reliance is a sense of courage.  It takes courage for the individual to break free of the conformist changes of the social order and embrace the sense of identity that is within them.  For Emerson, this courage is a requisite for self- reliance because he believes that the spark of individuality that exists within each person is a manifestation of something primal, a divine force that transcends all.  This understanding is one that takes courage to embrace and to live.

Another requisite for self- reliance is the commitment to follow through on the challenge of nonconformity.  Emerson would stress that being able to understand the pressing need to break away from the conformist trend of the social order has to become a part of the individual's sense of identity.  It is a requisite for self- reliance because Emerson believes that when one embraces nonconformity, a commitment to self- identity is made and one should not retreat from this:  ‘‘Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.'' The need to live for one's ideas and ideals requires a commitment to non- conformity.

Embracing originality is a requisite for self- reliance.  Emerson succinctly demands that the individual notion of self- reliance relies on originality and uniqueness:  "‘‘Insist on yourself. Never imitate.’’ For Emerson, originality and distinctiveness are elements that are requisites for self- reliance.  The individual has to have a sense of grounded pride in their originality and retreat from imitation in all of its forms.  When they are able to do this, the path towards self- reliance can exist.

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What does Emerson mean by self-reliance and what are his major points?

In his essay on “self-reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasizes the importance of trusting one’s own conscience; only by doing so can one realistically expect to maintaining one’s personal integrity. Everyone is constantly faced by social pressures to conform and follow a path that other people have established. While this option may seem easier or cause one less inner anguish, unthinking adherence to other people’s ideas and expectations will rarely yield good results.

Emerson connects the genius and greatness of celebrated individuals to the ways that ordinary people can and should live. Genius is not a rare quality exclusive to few but is within the grasp of everyone who lives an authentic life. To Emerson, the only thing that is sacred is “the integrity of your own mind.” Those who routinely allow their conduct to be swayed by others’ opinions and rules are committing a kind of moral suicide. Constant conformity has lasting damage as it erodes one’s ability to think independently and to truly understand oneself. Those who act because they desire praise will never be satisfied because of their faulty motivations. Instead, one must take the necessary risks. “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

He further emphasizes the necessity of contemplating and honestly trying to understand the reasons for proper behavior. Simply to engage in an action that others deem virtuous is not only insufficient but often insincere. In his example of donating to charity in an effort to make up for a personal shortcoming, he compares this type of act to paying a fine. Better to sincerely try to live virtuously, he recommends, than to fall into hypocrisy.

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What does Emerson mean by self-reliance and what are his major points?

While we might think of self-reliance as primarily supporting oneself economically, Emerson, in this essay, focuses on spiritual and intellectual self-reliance as the highest good. He states this early on, writing:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.

Emerson assumes that his audience will be economically self-sufficient; it is not having any job, but instead finding one's destined vocation that matters. For that reason, he advises the young person to listen to his or her own inner voice and follow its dictates. This means throwing off the yoke of conformity and being true to oneself.

Emerson urges his listeners to trust their inner voice deeply and wholly. He argues that doing so is the only way to find inner peace and the only way to make a lasting mark on the world. He goes so far as to advise that individuals not be swayed when people suggest their inner voices might come from an evil rather than a divine source:

They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil. No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.

Emerson's essay assumes, as a matter of course, that there is a God directing our actions. We find what God has meant for us to do with our lives by looking inward, to our own souls, rather than outward to tradition or social and religious norms. When we overcome the initial resistance we (and others) feel to following our own path, we find our true destiny. When that happens, people will be attracted to us and support us in our cause.

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What does Emerson mean by self-reliance and what are his major points?

In this essay, Emerson champions the individual. He encourages each person to listen to his/her inner voice. This essay is very much in opposition to things like conformity. Emerson writes, "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist." Shortly before this, he writes that self-reliance is the aversion to conformity. In other words, it is the opposite of conformity. Instead of going along with what is socially popular, the individual should be bold enough to be different. 

Emerson adds that the self-reliant individual should also be willing to change. He writes that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." In other words, doing the same thing over and over again is simplistic, something done by people with "little minds." The self-reliant individual will be abnormal to the conformists. Since he/she does not conform to society and is willing to practice inconsistencies and differing viewpoints, he/she will look odd to other members of society. Emerson says this is quite alright. He gives examples of famous thinkers who were also misunderstood: Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. "To be great is to be misunderstood." Society wants people to be consistent, to follow the rules and ways of thinking that society prescribes. Emerson wants people to do the opposite. 

Emerson also warns against being awed by great buildings or by great historical figures. He says that the ordinary individual is just as capable of individual genius in his/her own way. Self-reliance is for everyone, not just the famous geniuses he's listed earlier (Copernicus, Galileo, etc.). Emerson notes that the self-reliant individual should not rely on intermediaries, institutions, or authorities to find his own truth. He claims that adherence to tradition stifles creativity. With religion, for example, if the answers are already established, how can the individual discover new, creative ways of understanding God and moral truths? 

Self-reliance is about looking inward. Reliance on outward things (society, conformity, property, and material possessions) is a mindless activity. The self-reliant person looks to him/herself for answers. This is the only way for the individual to truly understand his potential. 

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How does Emerson define self-reliance?

As Emerson is preaching a practical way of life, he doesn't elaborate over much on the concept of self-reliance. Instead, he provides us with examples of what self-reliant behavior might look like in reality.

The first such example is thinking independently, or thinking for yourself. Far too many people, according to Emerson, spend their whole lives hiding behind the opinions of others. Instead of developing their own thoughts, they're quite happy to go along with what everyone else is thinking. This susceptibility to received opinion is dangerous as it makes each and every one of us less of an individual. We shouldn't rely on anyone else for anything, least of all our thoughts.

The second example is related to the first. Self-reliance involves the embracing of one's individuality. For Emerson, the true individual has almost a quasi-divine status. For only the true individual, the genuinely self-reliant individual, is able to realize the majesty of God. The individual, freed from the received opinions of society, has a poetic way of seeing the world. He or she has the remarkable ability to read nature, to understand its divine teachings.

Self-reliance also involves non-conformism. It means doing your own thing, steadfastly refusing to do something just because everyone else is doing it. Emerson passionately believes that only by non-conformity can people become truly, and authentically, human. In such a life, there is no place for consistency:

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.

In the individual mind, there is sanctity. Therefore, if one imitates others—goes with the flow, so to speak—one is guilty of trampling upon something that is sacred.

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How does Emerson define self-reliance?

In Emerson’s essay "Self-Reliance," he describes self-reliance as a state in which one is dependent only on oneself to form opinions and beliefs about life and society—and to determine one's purpose in it. Emerson says that people should not lean on other sources to help them lead their life. People should not allow themselves to be overly influenced by newspapers, the thoughts and opinions of society as a whole, or what the "genius of their age" is saying and doing.

Writing at a time when many Americans were religious and followed the rules and word of their church to the letter, Emerson warns that such deference can be dangerous. After all, each person has an inner voice or sense of self that they need to develop in order to be the person they are meant to be—to become one who contributes to society as opposed to following the herd.

Emerson argues that to be independent, one needs to turn from the mainstream schools of thought and develop one's own belief system. Emerson loved to debate and often held talks in his home where people shared and discussed ideas, and Emerson found this to be an important part of truly understanding what one authentically believes.

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