Self-Reliance "To Be Great Is To Be Misunderstood"

Ralph Waldo Emerson

"To Be Great Is To Be Misunderstood"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The individual, Emerson says, must be self-reliant and self-sufficient: "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 . . . imitation is suicide . . . Accept the place the divine providence has found for you. . . ." A true man is a self-trusting nonconformist, for "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." Emerson rejects religious dogma and traditional morality: "the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it . . . I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me . . . The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." Conformity makes us false, but "For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure." The other enemy of self-trust "is our own consistency; a reverence for our past act or word. . . ." Self-contradiction is unimportant, for we must "bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day." The great man must realize that people will resent his preference of truth over consistency:

. . . Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.–"Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood."–Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernious, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.