Self-Reliance Significant Allusions
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Significant Allusions

Biblical and Christian Allusions: For a former preacher, Emerson includes few biblical allusions in the essay. One significant exception is a reference to Matthew 10:37 about allegiance (“I shun father and mother”). Emerson does, however, reference various alternative religious movements, and discussing why can bring out observations about the essay’s position on nonconformity. 

  • Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson: Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends, a sect of Christianity founded by George Fox in England during the late 17th century. Quakers strongly oppose violence and have no formal creeds, rites, or clergy. Charles Wesley led the Methodist movement, a denomination of Protestantism, in England during the 18th century. Methodists were concerned with social issues, mainly the abolition of slavery. Thomas Clarkson was a tireless opponent of the African slave trade who led campaigns and formed the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the 19th century. 
  • Calvinism and Swedenborgism: These two religious movements were founded by John Calvin and Emanuel Swedenborg, respectively. 
  • “. . . the phraseology of I know not what David, or Jeremiah, or Paul”: David, Jeremiah, and Paul are all prophets in the Christian Bible. 

Thematic Allusions to History’s Men of Genius: Emerson’s references in this essay are mostly to historical figures, especially from antiquity, but also to more recent contrarians. His references to figures across time and cultures contributes to his claims about universal humanity. Students may not recognize all of these names, but they are likely to register the names they do recognize here as “great men.” These references can bring out discussion about the theme of genius in the essay (see also: “Tricky Aspects of the Text”). 

  • Moses, Plato, and Milton: Moses, Hebrew prophet; Plato, Greek philosopher; John Milton, British poet. Emerson groups these three as original thinkers. 
  • Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Newton: Emerson lists figures whose ideas were ostracized or suppressed. Pythagoras, 6th-century leader of a school of...

(The entire section is 481 words.)