Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3979
"Self-Reliance" is the most widely knownnd perhaps the most misunderstoodssay by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882). The most casual reader can identify as Emerson's the dozens of affirmative aphorisms from the essay, pithy sayings used widely in greeting cards and in advertisements. "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string" (CW 2:28); "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist" (p. 29); "live ever in a new day" (p. 33); "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (p. 33); "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man" (p. 35). Countless readers have turned to this essay for encouragement and personal validation since it was first published in Emerson's Essays: First Series in 1841. One hundred years later, the poet Edgar Lee Masters paid tribute to the liberating force of Emerson on youth in the intellectually repressive atmosphere of rural Illinois: "Under his influence we felt that we were not hostile to the good life by free thinking about religion, or about anything else" (p. 2). More recently, the musician and environmentalist Don Henley declared that "Self-Reliance" was "one of the primary forces that motivated me to become a song writer. It gave me confidence in myself " (quoted in Mott, p. 64).
THE CRITICAL DEBATE
Despite such testimonials to the appeal of Emerson's message of self-reliance, the nature and the legacy of "Self-Reliance" are matters of perennial dispute. Generations of readers like Masters and Henley have found in Emerson reassurance that their lives are inherently worthy and encouragement to hold to personal convictions or to cultivate talents. The very matter of self-reliance, however, has been a battleground on which critics of American culture have argued over whether Emerson's most characteristic principle is an innocuous mode of individual reflection or something more sinister and dangerous mantle for selfish and predatory forms of capitalism, a high-sounding cloak for aggressive expansionist and militarist impulses, a sign of the failure of community in the United States, an illusion masking loneliness and alienation at the very heart of the national psyche. The argument began immediately, among conservative religious thinkers who already suspected Emerson of being a heretic after his "Divinity School Address" (1838), and among writers with a darker, more tragic view of human nature. Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales of sin and The Scarlet Letter (1850), with its penetrating analysis of the human heart, and Herman Melville's portrait of Captain Ahab's intellectual pride and isolation in Moby-Dick (1851) are often seen as implicit quarrels with Emersonian self-reliance and optimism.
Criticism of Emersonian self-reliance grew more pointed in the second half of the twentieth century. In The Imperial Self (1971), Quentin Anderson argued that the boisterous competitiveness of the Age of Jacksonccompanied by its disruption of social arrangements and economic instabilityrove many intelligent young Americans in upon their own private resources. He regarded Emerson as chief among those who, in privileging moments of insight, fell back on personal integrity as the only secure value in a volatile world. But this posture, Anderson insisted, was ultimately desperate and selfish, a rejection of community and history and the psychological and moral equivalent of antinomianismhe Puritan heresy asserted by Anne Hutchinson (1591643) that placed the regenerate individual above the constraints of theological and social law that govern everyone else. In 1981 Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti extended the charges against Emerson, announcing at a commencement ceremony that Emerson's essay "Power" helped unleash a mean-spirited incivility in the United States, providing our political leaders with a rationale for ruthless abuse of power. Robert N. Bellah's sociological study of the loss of community in America, Habits of the Heart (1985), offered a less biting critique but still decried the damage caused by the culture's celebration of a free-floating, unattached "self" tradition he found popularized by Emerson and alive in the selfishness of the 1980s "Me Generation." But what was the cultural climate in which Emerson began to conceive of self-reliance?
THE CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT OF SELF-RELIANCE
"Self-Reliance" is the culmination of Emerson's attempt to name and describe the role of individualism in an age of unsettling change causing both hope and fear in the young nation. As a Unitarian minister at Second Church in Boston (1829832), Emerson had begun formulating a concept of character that would withstand the vagaries of life. Fascinated by Stoic ideas of self-control, he initially referred to this quality as "self-respect," "self-command," and "self-trust." In a sermon of 1830 he also called it "self-reliance" (CS 2:266). He noted in an 1831 sermon, however, the "limits of self-reliance": "the origin of self" is God (CS 3:202). By 1833 he was lecturing from material that would find its way into his great 1841 essay. Emerson's attempt to explain and inculcate self-reliance mirrored the growing impulse of common people in the 1830s to control their own destinies, to assert their autonomy in political, social, and economic spheres of life. Such mobility required them to establish internal structures of self-control in place of external social structures. The rapid spread of evangelical religionhough it was more emotional than Emerson's more temperate and cultured form of Unitarianismmbodied the same democratic spirit. Zealous preachers leveled doctrinal and denominational barriers to God, arousing in average folk a stirring, immediate, personal religious experience.
The national life of the 1830s was marked by such public confidence that the characteristic slogan of the decade was "Go ahead!" phrase made popular by the self-promoting frontiersman and politician Davy Crockett. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were engaged in vigorous commercial competition. States in the Northeast were newly connected by a network of canals that embodied the nation's robust, entrepreneurial economic system. Emerging as a source of astonishment and pride was the railroad, which in Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) became an ambiguous symbol of progress. Americans were pushing inexorably west. The new nation was undergoing dynamic transformation. Fortunes were to be made by men capable of shrewd investments and driving a hard bargain, and anyone, it seemed, could create a new life by removing to new territory, by working hard, by seizing opportunity. Sixty years earlier, in the throes of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine had envisioned in Common Sense (1776) that on these shores we had it in our power to begin the world anew. Now in the 1830s it seemed that Americans were quite literally refashioning their selves.
Foreign visitors in the 1830s noted the influence of democratic political and economic forces on the American character and sought a new vocabulary to describe the phenomenon. The first literary use of the term self-reliance noted by the Oxford English Dictionary was by the English social critic and reformer Harriet Martineau (though Emerson had been using the term for several years). In Society in America (1837) she observed the destructive influence of socially approved gender stereotypes, declaring, "Women are, as might be anticipated, weak, ignorant and subservient, in as far as they exchange self-reliance for reliance on anything out of themselves" (3:117). The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835, 1840) offered a more political sense of the related term individualism, which he contrasted with the older term egoism. Individualism, he suggested, is a product of democratic disruption of social order and relationship found in older aristocratic societies. The condition of "social equality," he believed, encourages people to "imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands," which threatens to confine each person "in the solitude of his own heart" (p. 478) danger averted in America only by the vigor of the electoral system and local control.
The nation's mood was embodied by its seventh president, Andrew Jacksonhe first president from a state outside of Massachusetts and Virginiahose two terms (1829836) ushered in new political opportunities for common folk even as the country witnessed the introduction of the spoils system and a festering of social and moral problems. The nation's bounding spirit indeed masked tensions and contradictions. Land hunger was accompanied in the Southeast by the cruel and tragic policy of Indian removal. Settlement in Texas provoked conflict with Mexico, and Crockett was martyred at the Alamo in 1836. War fever against Mexico would culminate in 1846848 in a conflict opposed as jingoistic by many Americans, including Thoreau, whose "Resistance to Civil Government" ("Civil Disobedience," 1849) was triggered by his refusal to pay a tax that he claimed would underwrite an illegal war that was an underhanded scheme to carve out a new slave territory. A sense that society as well as individuals had the ability to change fueled a reform spirit that was beginning to press for the improved conditions of those who, owing to racism, gender, physical disability, or other constraints, were denied the opportunities that were fundamental to the country's pride. The emergence of abolitionism, the woman's movement, education reform, temperance, penal reform, and improved treatment of the blind, the deaf, and the mentally ill would cause the 1840s to be called the Age of Reform. Already in the 1830s these reform movements were evidence that boastful nationalism could not conceal abusive and immoral social conditions. But the real blow to public as well as personal confidence was the economic panic of 1837, which wiped out fortunes and stirred up insecurity about the very conditions and promise of American life.
Before he published "Self-Reliance," Emerson, as well as his associates in the Transcendental Club and other reformers, had already begun to criticize the pervasive materialism of American culture. His "The American Scholar" was later called "our intellectual declaration of independence" by Oliver Wendell Holmes. But when he gave this Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard on 31 August 1837 he was challenging the intellectual stagnation afflicting his own generation and the rising one in the United States, and he attacked a major cause of this ennui: the dominance of the "so-called 'practical men'" (CW 1:59) whose sneering disdain of thinking and all activity that cannot be measured by the accumulation of wealth and power had skewed the nation's values. The current economic panic should have made manifest the fragility of mere materialism.
Emerson had other more personal reasons to want to hitch his wagon to values more enduring than those of the marketplace. Ever since he was a child, his family had been afflicted by calamitous illness and early death. Most recently he had lost his young wife to consumption (1831), followed by the deaths of his brothers Edward and Charles (in 1834 and 1836). He was introverted by nature, and his early career in the ministry and his new venture into the vocation of lecturing and writing, though certainly means of making a living, involved intellectual talents not weighed merely in the countinghouses of Boston. Three important forces had further shaped his sense of individualism: the American Revolution, whose legacy Massachusetts had keenly memorialized; the liberal Christianity, or Unitarianism, in which he had been raised; and the international Romantic movement that had attracted him as a youth. Each of these three traditions encouraged kinds of individualism that transcended aggressiveness in the political and economic arenas. The Revolution and its aftermath introduced influential new families into New England society, as independence spurred new ambition and wealth. But the dream of continually redefining and extending the benefits of liberty in the new republic kindled the imaginations of Emerson's generation. Unitarianism in Boston had evolved into the rather staid denomination of the cultural elite in Emerson's day. But Unitarianism's stress on self-culture involved not just development of one's bank account but intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual growth; and for reform-minded transcendentalists, self-culture was no license to withdraw into self-involvement but carried a moral imperative: to alleviate the suffering of others who struggled under the weight of institutional or other barriers to the achievement of personal dignity and self-hood. British and European Romanticism offered works of art and philosophy (and the example of dynamic lives such as those of Byron and Goethe) to inspire those who sought to assert the importance of the individualf mind, emotion, and imaginationn a world of convention, political oppression, deadening reason, and rampant materialism.
Against this backdrop of political, religious, and artistic idealism the publication of "Self-Reliance" in 1841 coincided with the founding at West Roxbury, Massachusetts, of Brook Farm (1841847), which was to be one of the most successful communitarian experiments in the United States. Emerson, who followed the reforms of the age with interest and was increasingly drawn into abolitionist activities, was attracted to the principles of Brook Farm and thought seriously of joining. But in the end he chose to maintain his own domestic circle and to emphasize what was called self-culture, or the regeneration of the individual. "Self-Reliance" is his major expression of that self-reform.
VISION AND STYLE
"Self-Reliance" cannot be reduced to a social treatise or blueprint for personal success. Emerson's response to the spirit of his age is far too subtle. His prose, moreover, is famously nonlinear. His essays typically lack formal thesis statements, road maps of what lies ahead, reassuring autobiographical detail, smooth transitions, or formal summaries and conclusions. Grasping for intellectual anchors, most readers eagerly seize upon his engaging maxims, as though to quote them is to capture the essence of an essay. But Emerson's prose purpose iss he told the audience of his "Divinity School Address" of 1838o provoke, to entice the reader into engaging with an idea and to see a familiar term in strange and challenging contexts.
In reading Emerson, context is everythingtarting with the placement of an essay in relation to other essays in a book. "Self-Reliance" is preceded in the 1841 Essays by "History," whose first sentence declares that "There is one mind common to all individual men" (CW 2:3); it is followed by "Compensation," which seeks to uncover the unalterable moral equilibrium underlying all things. Accordingly, in "Self-Reliance," Emerson calls us not to be arrogantly self-defining or self-assertive but to be alert to our own resources, which means having the courage to accept and act out the "divine idea" in each person. Out of context, Emerson's maxims can sound cocky, aggressive, self-promoting, willful, or simply contrary; but his assertion of the ancient maxim "Trust thyself" is followed in the essay by the injunction to "Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you; the society of your contemporaries, the connexion of events" (CW 2:28). The universal law of true freedom, he implies, consists in engaging with the facts and situations of our specific lives. Because life is in the present moment, intuition is more valuable than "consciousness" (p. 29) otherwise our actions are extraneous and not integral to our character. Integrity consists not in withdrawing from the hurly-burly of life but in spiritual equipoise that is tested "in the midst of the crowd" (p. 31). It is not a random or chaotic phenomenon but "cumulative" (p. 34). The twin threats to our integrity are external and internalthe multitude" and our own "consistency" or "reverence for our past act or word" (p. 33) for our past actsoth of which tempt us with conformity and loss of spontaneity.
But how to fix "meaning" or even paraphrase such a fluid essay? Emerson typically tempts us with a stunning image or a claim that seems finally to codify, or at least capture, his essential ideanly to shift the very ground of image or claim. For example, early in the essay he asserts the imperative, in the face of social pressure, to express his own "nature." Then he exemplifies his stance as "nonconformist" by yoking two declarations that must have struck contemporary readers as flirting with irreverence. The first is Byronically defiant and willful: "'if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.'" The second is a cavalier, profane appropriation of the Old Testament account of the Passover (Exodus 12:223) and Moses' injunction to record God's commandments (Deuteronomy 6:9): "I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation" (CW 2:30). Such statements establish a tone of urgency, a feeling that the implications of the essay press beyond printed words to life to be lived outside the pages. Yet even this is only part of Emerson's vision. Seven pages later he defends the stance of self-reliance against the charge of narcissistic arrogance by reversing the very terms of his earlier whimsicality. "When we discern justice, when we discern truth," he writes, "we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. . . . [Thoughtless people] fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal" (p. 378). In the most famous passage in the essay, Emerson had warned that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (p. 33); Emerson refuses to fall into this trap himself, especially when playing with as volatile a concept as whim. Having earlier evoked the giddy sense of freedom from conformity, he now goes to great length to show that self-reliance is finally no frivolous disregard of moral responsibility but a continually demanding response to hard truth.
If only one could sustain such alertness! Emerson has encouraged us by holding out the democratic promise that we may find ourselves to be "true prince[s]" because, as he saucily notes, the great men of history did not "wear out virtue" (p. 36). But we are not allowed to rest on these noble heights, for Emerson uses a rhetorical give-and-take strategy throughout the essay, keeping us oscillating between glowing affirmations about human potential and deflating reminders about the actual state of affairs. The "soul is light" itself; yet now "Man is timid and apologetic" (p. 38). "God is here within"; "But now we are a mob" (p. 41).
Emerson devotes much of the essay to explaining what self-reliance isnd is not. It is personal but not idiosyncratic, as it derives from a universal source, an "aboriginal Self" (p. 37; identified as God in the sermon a decade earlier); it renders one "godlike" (p. 43) but is not "mere antinomianism" (p. 42). Definitionsords themselvesre finally inadequate to convey fully what is at stake in self-reliance. "To talk of reliance," in fact, "is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is" (p. 40). It is a delusion to think that we must squeamishly withdraw from falsehood and moral contamination, for our "isolation . . . must be elevation" (p. 41). Acting with integrity is done "not selfishly, but humbly and truly" (p. 42). The affliction of "our age," we are reminded, is that individuals have "become timorous desponding whimperers" (p. 43). Lacking the resiliency of rural youth who, like cats, land on their feet, privileged youth are desiccated and expect quick results. Self-reliance, however, is not a badge or an easy fix but character and life itself. It does not justify a feeling of moral superiority, nor is it license to ignore injustice or to dominate others.
The essay ends with brief mention of contemporary ills: society's skewed values, the culture's "rage of travelling" (p. 46), the imitative strain that taints individuals and institutions. Criticizing the shallow optimism of the day, he declares that we are no better today than people in Plutarch's age. The nineteenth century's materialismts "reliance on Property" and quantification (p. 49)s evidence that history is not a record of continual improvement of the human condition and that as yet America is unexceptional. The only antidote to both arrogance and blind confidence in the future is a kind of stoic integrity defined as "yourself" and "the triumph of principles" (p. 51).
Emerson's nonlinear prose and rhetorical strategies unsettle logical expectations and conventional ways of defining terms. Demanding, disorienting, and even disturbing, his vision and style are also, as he intended, liberating. Even as Emerson refuses to provide a pat definition of self-reliance and thwarts us from settling comfortably into a new orthodoxyven as we are thrown on our own imaginative resourcese achieve a sense of mastery. We are compelled to supply personal experience to exemplify Emerson's aphoristic claims, becoming in the process not recipients of secondhand wisdom but co-creators of meaning.
SELF-RELIANCE IN EMERSON'S LATER WRITINGS
Throughout his career Emerson wrote pointedly about the psychological and social dangers of isolation, abuse of power, and narcissismll perversions of genuine self-reliance. In his essay "Intellect" (1841) he warns that in a merely self-regarding mind, a single obsessive thought is a kind of "prison" (CW 2:201). His portrait of Napoleon in Representative Men (1850) is a devastating exposé of individualism turned tyranny. Napoleon is the epitome of the practical manriven, focused, charismaticut in the end an egotistical, mean, untrustworthy liar. And in "Culture," in the later, more pragmatic The Conduct of Life (1860), Emerson reflects on a paradox: that nature instills individualism in each person, yet many talented people are "shut . . . up in a narrower selfism" (W 6:133), afflicted by the "goitre of egotism" (W 6:134). The broadening corrective to "solitude and repulsion" is afforded by culture. Indeed, in this essay Emerson contradicts his own advice from "Self-Reliance": In the 1841 essay he had chided the contemporary passion for travel as "a fool's paradise" (CW 2:46); in 1860 he admits that travel can be one of the treasured activities of culture that leavens narrow egotism in the provincial individual. And so Emerson, in changing times and contexts, still has the courage to resist "foolish consistency" in his own thinking.
Despite Emerson's nuanced treatment of self-reliance, readers continue to plunder his works to prop up all manner of political and philosophical stances and to praise him or blame him for what they take to be the qualities or the defects of his vision. Emerson has long been one of the handiest straw men in debates over national value, the term "Emersonian" usually implying, for good or ill, one's take on the implications of self-reliance. Lacking careful definition, "Emersonian" is as charged and flexible (and thus perhaps as meaningless) an adjective as such comparable cultural signifiers as "Puritan," "Victorian," and "modern." It is a critical commonplace that readers find what they are seeking in Emerson, and wise readers step cautiously before using Emerson for ulterior purposes. Emerson's protean style and his strong sense of paradox have always made paraphrasing him, let alone using his writings as support for ideological positions, a slippery affair. Self-reliance, as Emerson knew, is hard to define and even harder to live out. The challenge of "Self-Reliance"s he intendeds renewed with each fresh reading.
See also "The American Scholar"; "Experience"; "The Poet"; Nature; Transcendentalism
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Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 4 vols. Edited by Albert J. von Frank et al. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989-1992. Cited in the text as CS.
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Wesley T. Mott