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Emerson wrote that "[s]ociety everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members" and that a man is "clapped into jail by his consciousness." By this, he meant that the requirements imposed by society—some economic, some social—provide barriers to the full expression of one's individuality and, indeed, his self-reliance. This is because the very nature of society seems to incentivize conformity. In order to be polite, to make a living, or just to be accepted, people follow the popular will rather than the dictates of their own conscience.

Emerson, of course, urges people to do exactly the opposite. He famously exhorts the reader to "trust thyself," to look within for a moral compass, and to act accordingly. Emerson does not downplay the significance to these obstacles to self-actualization. He acknowledges that people who have the courage to act according to the dictates of their own conscience will face the "rage of the cultivated classes." They will also face the barrier of history, in which Emerson sees little more than kings trying to convince people that they should follow the dictates and the examples of other people.

Even the supposed internal obstacles are social in nature. The internal desire for "consistency," he writes, "scares us from self-trust." But even this is actually related to society. We worry about being consistent because we think people might accuse us of hypocrisy otherwise. In another famous phrase, he asserts that a "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." The people who praise one for being consistent to a stale ideal will be fools whose opinions are not worthy of consideration. People who try to align their thinking with some ancient authority are not gaining acceptance or prestige from anyone who matters. So, in the final analysis, the main barriers to self-reliance are societal. As Emerson complains, "at times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles." To be authentic and self-reliant, truly original thinkers have to obey the dictates of their own conscience, not the world's.

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The main barrier to self-reliance is society. Emerson says that "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every" member because it requires us to "surrender" our freedom and conform.

According to Emerson, self-reliance is the "aversion" of conformity. In conforming to society, the individual must give up his own ideas or dreams and do what society tells him he should do. In short, when we conform, we try to be like everyone else, and this entails a departure from ourselves, and so, in this way, society—which demands conformity—is a barrier to self-reliance. If a young man, for example, does not want to follow his father into the family business, something both his family and society would likely expect him to do, he could feel the pressure to conform to expectation and give up his own dreams. This would result in a significant barrier to his self-reliance.

In addition, caring what other people think is another barrier to self-reliance. Emerson says that we will "always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it." There will always be those who disagree with us, who want to tell us what we should be doing or how we should be doing it, and if we listen to them, we learn to rely on them rather than on ourselves, as we ought to do.

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Emerson outlines several barriers to self-reliance in his essay on the subject. First of all, he notes that the voice in our own mind is so familiar to us that we are sometimes unable to take our own thoughts seriously. Because we are so used to listening to the "genius" of others, rather than our own, we sometimes wait until we hear our own thought articulated by someone else before accepting that it is true.

Emerson goes on to say that we do not trust ourselves or accept the fact that we are all made in the image of God and that therefore all of us is capable of "light" and clear thought. We are afraid of anything other than "neutrality" because we want to conform to what society expects of us, and we do not want to say anything which might be misread or criticized by others. Anyone who wants to be a self-reliant person, then, Emerson says, must be "a non-conformist" who does not allow himself to be held back by society's ideas of what is "good."

Emerson dwells on the idea of conformity for a significant portion of the essay. He believes that a man must do his own work without considering how far he conforms to other people's expectations in order to become self-reliant. It is over-reliance on the opinions of others that holds us back.

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The two great barriers to self-reliance, according to Emerson, are the chief evils of conformity and consistency. Emerson saw society as a massive barrier to individuals achieving self-reliance through the way that it encourages everybody to conform to the tenets of society, which Emerson argued prevented individuals becoming independent. Conformity meant ascribing to an ideal of community and togetherness that does not allow man to stand on his own two feet and, in Emerson's words, "Trust thyself." In addition, consistency is the other evil that prevents self-reliance, as the following quote explores:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

Consistency is such a problem because people get stuck in a rut, Emerson argues, doing and thining the same things day in and day out, and this prevents them from being true to themselves in the same way that conformity does precisely because they are unable to break out of that rut and think alternative thoughts and do alternative things. Just after this quote, Emerson argues that people are consistent because they are afraid that if they suddenly think something else they will be misunderstood, yet Emerson says that "To be great is to be misunderstood," pointing towards the truth that greatness and genius are often not recognised as such by others. The two great barriers that Emerson identifies as stopping people from achieving self-reliance therefore are conformity, in the way that the majority of people get a job, settle down and pay their taxes, and consistency, which is shown through people following a very similar routine day in and day out, and thinking very similar thoughts, being afraid to embrace any difference.

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What are some of the barriers to self-reliance in “Self-Reliance” by Emerson?

According to Emerson, some of the barriers to self-reliance are:

The Overwhelming Need To Conform In Order To Fit In

In his treatise, Emerson contends that society is a "joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater." The need to conform is especially strong, because membership in such a society confers certain benefits. These benefits may either be material or abstract in nature; nevertheless, they are "real" benefits people value.

Thus, Emerson argues that conformity is the enemy of self-reliance. He maintains that conformity "loves not realities and creators, but names and customs."

A Society That Confers Respectability On Those Who Abide By Its Strictures

By extension, Emerson argues that society is perhaps the greatest barrier to self-reliance. When people conform to societal expectations, society confers on them social respectability. Emerson complains that this unfairly gives an "angry bigot" a good reputation (albeit one he does not deserve).

If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, "Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home."

Emerson argues that social respectability hides many evils, so to speak. He especially resents the fact that society gets to decide the definition of a "good" man. For his part, Emerson sees no reason to give to "miscellaneous popular charities" and the "thousandfold Relief Societies" that confer respectability on anyone who donates. Emerson will only align with those who share his spiritual values:

I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be.

The Almost Overpowering Need For Consistency

According to Emerson, the need for consistency is another barrier to self-reliance. He suggests that people are motivated by their need for consistency. Our nature is drawn to the familiar. We trust in our social, political, and religious institutions because they fill our need for uniformity and stability. In contrast, self-reliance is seen as a position that embraces volatility; this is unsettling to many people.

However, Emerson argues for self-reliance anyway. He contends that each individual is capable of greatness.

Why all this deference to Alfred, and Scanderbeg, and Gustavus? Suppose they were virtuous; did they wear out virtue? As great a stake depends on your private act to-day, as followed their public and renowned steps. When private men shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen.

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In "Self-Reliance," according to Emerson, what is one major obstacle to achieving self-reliance?

Throughout this fascinating essay Emerson makes it clear that in his mind, the antithesis of self-reliance is civilization because it encourages conformity. Note what he says about the negative impact of civilization and how it encourages us to relentlessly conform:

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most respects is conformity. Self-reliance it its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Here we clearly see why, in Emerson's opinion, civilization is so dangerous. In solitude we can hear the "voices" that tell us to "trust ourselves". Civilization drowns out those voices. Society itself is designed to "surrender the liberty and culture" of each member as we all conform together towards one common goal. Society loves established "customs" and "names" rather than the more creative "creators" and "realities". To be truly self-reliant, therefore, Emerson seems to be saying, we need to distance ourselves from society and civilization so we can trust ourselves.

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