Self-Reliance is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy of individualism. It was first published in Essays in the year 1841 and is said to be Ralph Waldo Emerson’s finest example of his prose in the form of a definitive statement.
Emerson, who is known for his repeated use of the phrase – “trust thyself” which means to have faith in yourself, has woven it into his work – “Self-Reliance”. It is his explanation of what he meant by the repeated use of the phrase – “trust thyself”.
Emerson wrote that every individual has a genius in him which comes out when one trusts himself, has faith in himself, when one can trust his thoughts, feelings and his desire and passion even after all disapprovals.
He uses “men” and “mankind” referring to the whole existing humanity and gives a number of examples of great individuals who exhibited self-reliance and achieved success in their lives. This became the base of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work – “Self- Reliance”.
He begins his work by defining genius as – “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.’’ He further writes that the almighty has made each person unique and each educated person realizes that ignorance is envy. He says that the people must seek loneliness for themselves to listen to this genius and to trust oneself and to hear and act on the voice of God. He adds, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.”
He further gives instances of people who have trusted themselves and have finally achieved success. These include Moses, Plato and Milton. He goes on further to write that an individual is discouraged only by two sources, the first one being the society and the second being the foolish consistency. He criticizes the society harshly calling it “a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Focusing on foolish consistency Emerson describes it as – “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.’’ To support his view he urges that “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.’’ He also says that one must be true not to what was done yesterday but he must be true to the right track and he would surely achieve his goal.
He ends the essay by writing about self-worth. He states “man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.” He says that the people who believe in the saying – “trust thyself” must value themselves, never underestimate themselves and consider themselves equal to the great men of history.
Throughout his essay, Emerson argues against behaving in a socially acceptable manner and trusting oneself.
The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.
These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. ("Self-Reliance")
Basic set up:
Ralph Waldo Emerson argues in his essay "Self-Reliance" that we should all follow our own minds. Don't let anyone tell you what to do… not even Thoreau.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is all about individualism, and we can see it in these paragraphs from his essay. According to him, we should all try to return to the state of innocence of children. That's because kids don't sit around and obsess about what people think of them. They follow their own minds. They're independent, and they have strong opinions: they love things or they hate things.
According to Emerson, we should all strive to be like that. Because having an independent mind, and not giving into pressure to follow the herd, is the only way we can be true to our own identity. So let's all be nonconformists. Let's be rebels and go against the grain. Let's do what we want.
Even though Ralph Waldo Emerson is writing in essay form, his style of writing in the above passage is still very literary. Check out those flowery flourishes. Dang.
A lot of the most famous ideas and concepts developed by the American Romantics were elaborated in essays, such as Emerson's "Self-Reliance" above. The American Romantics weren't just great at writing fiction and poetry; they were also great at writing essays. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from the Romantics about writing those pesky English papers?