Self-Reliance Summary
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-Reliance book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Self-Reliance Summary

"Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an 1841 essay about the importance of pursuing one's own thoughts and intuitions, rather than adhering to public norms.

  • Emerson urges his readers to follow their individual will instead of conforming to social expectations.

  • Emerson draws on examples of historical geniuses—such as Plato and Milton—in arguing for the importance of individualism.

  • Emerson posits the effects of self-reliance: altering religious practices, encouraging Americans to stay at home and develop their own culture, and focusing on individual rather than societal progress.

Summary

In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson begins with a definition of genius, a quality which he says he recently encountered in a poem written by an eminent painter. Genius is to “believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” Moses, Plato, and Milton had this quality of disregarding tradition and speaking their own thoughts, but most people dismiss these thoughts, only to recognize them later in works of acknowledged genius.

Download Self-Reliance Study Guide

Subscribe Now

At some point, every individual realizes that “imitation is suicide.” One’s own powers of perception and creativity are the most important gifts, and one can only be happy by putting one’s heart into the work at hand. Great individuals have always accepted their position in the age in which they lived and trusted their own ability to make the best of it. Children, and even animals, also have this enviable power of certitude in their undivided minds.

Society requires conformity from its citizens, but to be a self-reliant individual is to be a nonconformist. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Concepts such as good and evil, with which many people are accustomed to label their thoughts, are meaningless so long as people are true to themselves. Most people are swayed by irrelevant matters, such as how their conduct appears to others. The appearance of virtue is often a penance, which people perform because they think it makes them fit to live in the world, not because it expresses their true natures. It is easy to be independent when one is alone, but the great individual retains the independence of solitude even when surrounded by others.

If one conforms, it is impossible for others to know one’s deeper self. One becomes like a lawyer speaking on someone else’s behalf, and everything one says is predictable and inauthentic. Conformity is tempting, because nonconformity angers others, but also because people want to be consistent, which means sticking to former opinions rather than thinking independently. However, one should not be any more concerned with what one used to think than with what others think now. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson puts it. One should not fear being misunderstood, for this was the fate of many of the greatest individuals in history. “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

An individual should aim to be great on their own terms, rather than trying to gain the approval of others who have achieved greatness. However magnificent a building, book, or work of art may be, one should not be overwhelmed by it but consider it an object to be judged and appreciated. “The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command me, but I am to settle its claims to praise.” People have generally paid great respect to kings, such as Alexander the Great, but the best lesson to learn is not to venerate such people but to adopt their attitude to the world.

The source of the self on which one must rely is generally called Spontaneity, Instinct, or Intuition. It might also be described as the Soul. It is the means by which one may discern justice and wisdom and receive inspiration directly from God, without recourse to texts, teachings, and traditions, which only confuse matters and prevent one from perceiving the truth clearly. People generally do not have the...

(The entire section is 1,076 words.)