How does Emerson define self-reliance?

Quick answer:

Emerson doesn't actually define self-reliance as such. Nevertheless, from his famous essay of the same name, it's possible to derive three examples of what he actually means by the concept, namely thinking independently, embracing your individuality, and non-conformism.

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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 can a person be self reliant according to Emerson?

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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