What does Emerson mean by "envy is ignorance" in "Self-Reliance"?

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When Emerson describes envy as ignorance in "Self-Reliance," he is saying that anyone who is envious is ignorant of the really important element of life, which is self-determination. If you are self-determined, you will rely upon your own "genius" and never covet that of others.

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The thrust of Emerson's argument in this essay is that self-reliance, or self-determination, is the most important thing a person can possess. If we are self-determined and able to trust in the integrity of our own thoughts, then we will never fail. We should be able to rely upon our own "genius" in order to decide that a course of action is right, and we should not be looking to others to agree with us before we feel security in our own decisions and feelings.

When Emerson says that envy is ignorance, then, he is saying that anyone who feels envy is only ignorant of their own integrity. If a person is truly self-reliant, he will trust in his own feelings, his own value, his own beliefs, and his own understanding. If a person has achieved this state, there would be no need for envy. Envying another person for what they have or think or do means that you have failed to appreciate what you have yourself. Therefore, it could only be because of ignorance that anyone would envy another person.

Emerson is seeking to stimulate his readers to trust their own minds and their own capacity for intelligent thought. He is suggesting that envy is a waste of time and effort because it focuses the mind on wishing to be like other people rather than on celebrating and understanding ourselves.

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The idea of paying mind to the subjective notion of self is a powerfully compelling idea that is featured in Emerson's work.  The notion of envy is the desire to focus the subjective on another individual and within this, Emerson is suggesting that one loses their most elemental quality.  The idea of the subjective voice being the only element that an individual truly owns or possesses is an idea that is very powerful to the Transcendentalists.  These thinkers saw society as a growing cosmopolitan mass where individuals were defining themselves more in competition with one another, and not in distinction with one another.  It is not surprising that the rise of industry was happening as the Transcendentalists were composing their ideas.  Emerson's ideas of being distinctive, heeding the call of the individual, and praising the subjective as an experience with its own intrinsic good are evident in his belief that envy and imitation detract from these notions.

 

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"Envy is ignorance" because it prevents the development of an individual.  To wish to be like someone else is to deny one's own potential--"suicide"--and, thus, to remain in the darkness of ignorance.  Known for his repeated phrase of "trust thyself," Emerson repudiated the idea of a man's wishing to conform in his envy. 

Emerson's essay, Self-Reliance, begins with what he felt was genius:

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

Trusting oneself, and being an individual are genius, the antithesis of envy.  Emerson contends that God has made each person unique with his/her own individual work to do.  Therefore, to trust one's own thoughts and actions is very much like listening to God and acting upon His wishes. 

"Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members."

For Emerson, the importance of the individual is paramount.  "Self-reliance is its [conformity's] aversion."  The integrity of one's mind is what matters, not imitation, not envy.

 

 

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Along with the idea of being true to yourself, I would argue that Emerson is also implying something about the nature of envy itself.  We generally are envious of other people, often people that we don't know very much about.

The idea of enying something or someone implies a desire to be in that position but what Emerson makes clear is that one of the main reasons we envy that person or that position is our ignorance.  If we really understood or knew everything about that position, we might no longer want it.

Particularly going along with the idea of being true to one's own ideals and feelings, who knows what we might have to give up to have that thing or to be with that person, etc.  The idea is that if we really knew everything about it, we'd no longer be envious.

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In order to understand this line, let us look at a bit more of the essay -- "your" line and a part that comes after it.  Emerson says that a man has to know

that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion

What Emerson is saying here is one of the major ideas of transcendentalism -- he is saying that you have to be yourself.  Transcendentalists like Emerson belive that people have to obey their own consciences rather than listening to what society tells them to do.  In this quote, Emerson is saying much the same thing.

He is saying that it is dumb to want to be like other people (to envy them).  He is saying that trying to imitate other people is like killing yourself.  He is saying that you have to be content with who you are.

So, the major idea here is that you have to be yourself -- you cannot be what anyone else is or what anyone else thinks you should be.

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What does Emerson mean when he writes the aphorism “envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide”?

In this essay, Emerson encourages each person to live by their own principles. He exhorts the readers to rely on themselves for their ideas and values and goals, rather than listening to what other people say they should think, value, or strive for. The person who is self-reliant is one who is, ultimately, more mature and happy and satisfied with life than one who fails to listen to themselves and to learn what makes them unique and worthy.

Thus, Emerson says,

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

In other words, this realization only comes once one has reached a certain level of maturity: when we envy another person, we remain in ignorance of ourselves and what we have to offer; further, when we imitate another person, perhaps out of envy, we kill the independent and unique part of ourselves. This is because we are trying to be something we are not.

Each of us must accept who we are—the good and the bad—because we can do nothing real and true and lasting until we work with what gifts each of us is given. We must, to use Emerson's metaphor, till our own plot of ground, developing it and seeing what will grow there. When we try to plant what someone else has planted, so to speak, we do a disservice to our plot. Often, we might be better suited to growing something different, perhaps even something new.

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What does Emerson mean when he writes the aphorism “envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide”?

This quote is taken from the essay “Self-Reliance”. “Self-Reliance” is an essay written by the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was first published in 1841. In this essay, Emerson is reflecting on the themes of self-reliance and independence.

Through the quote you are referring to, Emerson highlights the need of people to remain self-reliant and independent. To him, “envy is ignorance” because envy is the desire to have something that somebody else has. Rather than being content with what one has already, envy makes people think negatively about themselves. This weakens their self-confidence. They are ignorant of their own achievements when they envy others. According to Emerson, one can never be truly self-reliant, if one keeps striving for the possessions and achievements of others. Instead of helping a person grow, envy causes ignorance and as a result restricts personal development.

This is the reason why Emerson continues to say that “imitation is suicide.” If a person tries to imitate someone else, then they are losing their own sense of self. They stop being their own independent person. Metaphorically speaking, they are killing their own character, which is why Emerson refers to it as “suicide.” According to Emerson, it is important that people believe in themselves, think freely and independently, and go through their lives without being too heavily influenced by others. Only then will it be possible for people to be truly self-reliant.

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What does Emerson mean when he writes the aphorism “envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide”?

The lines quoted from Ralph W. Emerson's "Self-Reliance" are part of a passage about maturity and identity. Emerson is saying that each person comes into a mature sense of self or full adult status when they accept who they are and do not make the mistake of envying another person. We live in ignorance of what is going on inside the other person so it would be an error to be jealous of what we think they have. Each person has unique value and must embrace their uniqueness; "he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion...."

If we turn our efforts toward trying to be someone we are not, we will sacrifice our identity. Because we have the autonomy to blaze our own trail, failure to do so would also be our responsibility. Thus he uses the heavily weighted term suicide, not just death. Emerson goes on to emphasize uniqueness:

The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

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What does Emerson mean when he writes the aphorism “envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide”?

Emerson, who wrote this in his essay "Self-reliance," is simply saying the following: be yourself. Don't worry about what other people are doing. Don't conform. Do what is right for you.

When he says "envy is ignorance," he means that it is a mistake to be jealous of what another person has or is doing. If you envy another person, it means you are ignorant or unaware of the deepest longings of your own soul. What another person has, or is, has nothing to do with what is right for you. Look inside yourself.

Emerson means the same thing when he writes, "imitation is suicide." When you imitate the life another person is leading, you may not being killing your body, but you are killing your soul. Emerson says that every individual is born with his own unique destiny planted in him by a divine power. Figure out what that destiny is. Follow it, no matter what other people say or do. 

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