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

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By “self-reliance,” Emerson means trusting one’s conscience and maintaining one’s personal integrity, especially in the face of social pressure to follow the patterns set by others.

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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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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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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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