Self-Reliance Themes

The main themes in "Self-Reliance" are genius vs. conformity, transcendent experience, and the paradox of imitation.

  • Genius vs. conformity: According to Emerson, those who attain genius are those who turn away from the pressures of the crowd and attend to their own thoughts and instincts.

  • Transcendent experience: Emerson delineates the types of transcendent experiences that, although impossible to fully describe, are captured in works of genius.

  • The paradox of imitation: Emerson discusses the paradox in which emulating great individuals is a path that leads one away from greatness.


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Genius vs. Conformity

It is common to point out that geniuses tend to be individuals rather than conformists. Emerson does make this observation, but he goes much further, making the more radical argument that it is this refusal to conform that makes one a genius. Emerson sees this quality of individualism as existing naturally in children, animals, and even plants. Roses, he says, do not imitate other roses. They are entirely themselves.

According to Emerson, this self-reliance is the principal quality that separates the genius from the ordinary mind. Most people, he says, think independently when they are alone. However, external pressures quickly force them to abandon this independence. Pressure to conform can come from diverse and sometimes unexpected sources. People fear not so much the judgment of their peers, who at least tend to be polite, as the derision of the mob. However, even the physical environment can be oppressive. It is easy to be intimidated by magnificent buildings and great works of art, to see them as confirmation of one’s own inferiority rather than as objects for one’s individualistic appreciation and appraisal. Even one’s own former opinions can pressure one to revert to a prior mode of thought. To be truly self-reliant is to rely on oneself in the current moment, without worrying about whether one’s ideas are consistent with past thoughts: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Emerson’s message here is essentially that of Horace, a message which Horace in turn extrapolates from Stoic philosophy: nil admirari, “wonder at nothing.” This is not a coincidence. Self-reliance is a deeply Stoic idea. Nothing outside one’s soul is as important as what lies within, namely one’s own ideas and principles. External circumstances do not make any difference to anything that matters. To understand this, and to apply that understanding to one’s life, is to become an individual—a genius, even—rather than part of the conformist mass.

Transcendent Experience

Although the essay is called “Self-Reliance,” Emerson warns readers that this title does not altogether capture its subject. The highest truth “remains unsaid; probably cannot be said.” This is the point where Emerson’s Transcendentalist philosophy comes to the fore, and he writes as a poet and mystic, even in his prose. The style becomes quite different from the tightly argued, logical, aphoristic prose that characterizes the rest of the essay. Emerson writes:

When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the footprints 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.

It is no accident that Emerson delineates this mystical experience rather than trying to define or explain it. The nature of the transcendent experience cannot be clearly articulated, since it transcends words. This may be taken as an admission that Emerson’s conception of genius is not quite so straightforward as it first appears. If all one has to do in order to be a genius is to articulate what one really thinks and feels, then genius is a much simpler concept than is usually imagined. However, before one can articulate what is within, one must find it and grasp what it is saying. One must translate the pure spirit of transcendent experience into words and actions. This is such a difficult task that those who can accomplish it really do merit the accolade of genius.

The Paradox of Imitation

Emerson asserts that “Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare.” He later points out that great individuals who in any way resemble Socrates or Anaxagoras will never be followers of Socrates or Anaxagoras. This paradox is linked to the idea that “imitation is suicide.” The more one follows the great individuals of history, admires them, and relies on their opinions, the less one will resemble them. Socrates did not rely on the authority of philosophers before him but thought for himself and founded an original philosophy. Those who quote Socrates now are the ones who have failed to learn this central lesson from him.

This point about the paradox of imitation occurs several times in the essay, each time referring to a different area of influence. For instance, Emerson says that nineteenth-century Americans copy ancient European styles of art and architecture, whereas the men who originated those styles would never have thought of imitating anyone else. He also makes the related point that educated Americans think they will learn something important by travelling to Greece and Rome, whereas the men who built those great civilizations never left home unless they were compelled to do so.

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