What is self-reliance, according to Emerson?

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According to Emerson, self-reliance means thinking for oneself rather than conforming to what other people think.

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Emerson's notion of self-reliance entails thinking for oneself. This means being independent of thought and action; thinking critically and not fearing ideas that might be contrary to one's own; and, more importantly, trusting one's innate sense of purpose and identity. This is the "iron string" which Emerson says vibrates "every heart." Such trust brings one closer to the Spirit, or God.

Emerson develops this idea in many ways. One example he uses is the "nonchalance of boys," a reference to the unselfconscious way oil which boys evaluate and judge others without concern for consequence. What Emerson admires about the boys is their ability to act without self-doubt; this quality is at the core of his statement that "whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist."

Indeed, conforming—shaping one's actions and opinions to match the prevailing preferences of society—is the opposite of self-reliance. The self-reliant person, then, is in some measure always in opposition to the culture at large. This idea extends to the notion of virtue, which in many cases Emerson sees as a kind of pose or capitulation to society.

As Emerson says, "what I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think." True virtue arises from the authentic self. It takes courage, Emerson says, to think outside of the mainstream in this way, but it is through a vigorous commitment to one's own nature that one best understands his connection to God.

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What are the requisites for the quality of self-reliance in Emerson's "Self-Reliance"?

The main requisite for self-reliance is to trust yourself. One must be willing to avoid conformity and avoid subscribing automatically to social traditions and institutions. A self-reliant person trusts his/her own inner voice and is not afraid to speak and act according to that inner consciousness, even if that means challenging others' fixed notions of acceptable behavior and thought. This essay is Emerson's manifesto in favor of individualism. He is simply establishing a mantra of how to be a genuine individual and this requires a willingness to trust one's self and a willingness to go against tradition and/or popular thinking. 

Emerson believed that when an individual is truly genuine, he/she will do what God intended. The reason is that Emerson believed that each person was a unique individual as deemed by God. Another requisite is for the individual to realize his/her uniqueness. Therefore, embracing one's individuality is not selfish; it is righteous. 

As Emerson implored the individual to avoid conforming to society's traditions, he also encouraged the individual to be willing to divert from his/her own personal past decisions and beliefs if the situation calls for it. In other words, if I have been a lifelong democrat, I should be willing to entertain other forms of government as situations arise. I shouldn't become mired and fixed in a frozen set of beliefs. 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. 

Since Emerson believes that genuine individualism, genuine self-reliance, is divinely unique in each person, he encourages spontaneity, instinct, and a trust in intuition. 

Emerson encourages men to be original. Originality is another requisite. Thus, they should trust their instincts and what they've learned through reason and introspection. A man/person should state his thoughts with confidence rather than hide behind the words of some historical thinker. That is imitation and it is a kind of conformity. 

Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage. 

The self-reliant individual should therefore, not rely on a way of thinking or a path previously established by some one else, some institutional system of thought, nor even his/her own past paths: 

When good is near you, when you have life yourself,--it is not by any known or appointed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;--the way, the thought, the good shall be wholly strange and new. 

So, even when an individual determines a "good" course of action (as universal and unchanging as "good" seems to mean), the self-reliant individual will find/create/discover a new method of achieving such goodness. This is the uniqueness, self-trust, and originality Emerson believes the self-reliant person expresses. 

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What are the requisites for self-reliance?

Emerson would suggest that one of the basic requisites needed for self- reliance is a sense of courage.  It takes courage for the individual to break free of the conformist changes of the social order and embrace the sense of identity that is within them.  For Emerson, this courage is a requisite for self- reliance because he believes that the spark of individuality that exists within each person is a manifestation of something primal, a divine force that transcends all.  This understanding is one that takes courage to embrace and to live.

Another requisite for self- reliance is the commitment to follow through on the challenge of nonconformity.  Emerson would stress that being able to understand the pressing need to break away from the conformist trend of the social order has to become a part of the individual's sense of identity.  It is a requisite for self- reliance because Emerson believes that when one embraces nonconformity, a commitment to self- identity is made and one should not retreat from this:  ‘‘Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.'' The need to live for one's ideas and ideals requires a commitment to non- conformity.

Embracing originality is a requisite for self- reliance.  Emerson succinctly demands that the individual notion of self- reliance relies on originality and uniqueness:  "‘‘Insist on yourself. Never imitate.’’ For Emerson, originality and distinctiveness are elements that are requisites for self- reliance.  The individual has to have a sense of grounded pride in their originality and retreat from imitation in all of its forms.  When they are able to do this, the path towards self- reliance can exist.

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