Student Question

What is the only wrong, according to Emerson, in "Self-Reliance"?

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In "Self-Reliance," Emerson says that the only wrong is what is antithetical to his nature and his truth.

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In "Self-Reliance," Emerson argues for the importance of original thought. People too easily bend to the opinions of society for fear of being judged harshly. Emerson thinks people should hold themselves in higher regard than that. In fact, he goes as far as to say that the only wrong in his mind is going against what one believes to be true for the sake of conformity:

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.

Some might think Emerson is arguing for extreme self-indulgence or closed-mindedness, but he is actually arguing for the right of the individual to think differently from others. In society, freethinkers and nonconformists are often viewed with suspicion and even derision. Thinking differently is sometimes even considered "wrong" when it stands in opposition to a majority view.

The passage in which Emerson recalls his own youthful questioning of certain church doctrines is a good example of this tendency. A traditionalist friend of his warned Emerson that his nonconformist notions might be "from below"—that is, of the Devil and therefore evil. However, Emerson does not believe his own ideas to be wrong just because they are different. When he claims, "If I am the Devil's child, then I will live then from the Devil," he is not agreeing that his ideas are evil. His point is that he is unwilling to go against what he believes in his heart to be right just because his ideas frighten and upset other people. For him, to live inauthentically is to live a lie. Therefore, it is the chief wrong in his worldview.

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