Self-Reliance "An Institution Is The Lengthened Shadow Of One Man"
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-Reliance book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Self-Reliance Study Guide

Subscribe Now

"An Institution Is The Lengthened Shadow Of One Man"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Emerson believed every human being is divine insofar as he has a soul. Every man can be selfreliant, then, in the sense that he can trust his own judgment in all matters. Emerson specifically objects in this essay to the individual's conforming to either customs of the past or the cry of the multitude, when these forces are contrary to his judgment; as Emerson writes, "What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think." He warns that by his nonconformity to mass opinion the individual arouses antagonism, that the individual must be willing to pay the price for nonconformity, for "the world whips you with its displeasure." Somewhat later in the essay Emerson says that the world always misunderstands the great individual, as they misunderstood such heroes of the past as Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. But the important thing, says Emerson, is to be true to one's self, not to violate one's own nature. To be true to one's nature is to be great, to avoid "the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment" of the times. Emerson issues a call for us all to be great in this way, leading other people instead of following. He believes that "Character, reality, reminds you of nothing else; it takes the place of the whole creation." The great person, suggests Emerson, is the man who makes all surrounding circumstances indifferent, is a creator not a user, a leader instead of a follower:

. . . Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design; and posterity seem to follow his steps as a train of clients. A man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as Monachism, of the Hermit Antony; the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson. Scipio, Milton called "the height of Rome"; and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.