At a Glance

“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.


(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...

(The entire section is 815 words.)