Self-Reliance Themes

“Self-Reliance” key themes:

  • In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson encourages individualism by describing each unique self as a purposeful creation of God.

  • Emerson supports nonconformity in the face of social pressure.

  • Emerson urges originality rather than imitation.

  • Emerson advises his reader to focus on the present and pursue a course that need not be consistent.

  • Emerson believes in man’s ability to make his own choices instead of succumbing to fate or fortune.

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(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

"Self-Reliance" is widely considered Emerson' s definitive statement of his philosophy of individualism. This philosophy esteems individuals above all—societies, nations, religions, and other institutions and systems of thought.

Emerson repeatedly calls on individuals to value their own thoughts, opinions, and experiences above those presented to them by other individuals, society, and religion. This radical individualism springs from Emerson's belief that each individual is not just unique but divinely unique; i.e., each individual is a unique expression of God's creativity and will. Further, since Emerson's God is purposeful, He molded each individual to serve a particular purpose, to do a certain work that only he or she is equipped to carry out.

This direct link between divinity and the individual provides assurance that the individual will, when rightly exercised, can never produce evil. Individual will, in Emerson's philosophy, is not selfish but divine.

In this context, an individual who fails to be self-reliant—who does not attend to and act upon his or her own thoughts and ideas—is out of step with God's purpose. Such a person, in Emerson's view, cannot be productive, fulfilled, or happy.

On the other hand, a person who is self-reliant can be assured that he or she is carrying out the divine purpose of life. This is true even of those who flout the rules and conventions of society and religion and suffer disapproval as a result. In fact, Emerson points out, those men who are now considered the greatest of all fall into this category. He gives as examples Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Isaac Newton.

Clearly, Emerson's philosophy of individualism leads directly to nonconformity. Most individuals will find that their private opinions and ideas are in agreement with those of others on some points. For example, most people agree that murder and theft are wrong. On those points, nearly everyone can be a conformist. A commitment to live according to one's own ideas about every matter, however, will certainly make every individual a nonconformist on some issues. In Emerson's words, ‘‘Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.''

Originality versus Imitation
The positive side of nonconformity is originality. Self-reliance is not a matter merely of not believing what others believe and doing what others do but, just as importantly, a matter of believing and doing what one is uniquely suited to believe and do. Emerson expects the self-reliant to substitute originality for imitation in every sphere of life.

Speaking specifically of architecture, Emerson explains that originality will yield a product that is superior (i.e., more suited to the needs of the maker) to one made by imitation:

If the American artist will study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people ... he will create a house in which all these will find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also.

‘‘Insist on yourself,’’ Emerson...

(The entire section is 815 words.)