A Summary and Analysis of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Self-Reliance’ is an influential 1841 essay by the American writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82). In this essay, Emerson argues that we should get to know our true selves rather than looking to other people to fashion our individual thoughts and ideas for us. Among other things, Emerson’s essay is a powerful rallying cry against the lure of conformity and groupthink.

You can read ‘Self-Reliance’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Emerson’s essay below.

‘Self-Reliance’: summary

Emerson prefaces his essay with several epigraphs, the first of which is a Latin phrase which translates as: ‘Do not seek yourself outside yourself.’ This axiom summarises the thrust of Emerson’s argument, which concerns the cultivation of one’s own opinions and thoughts, even if they are at odds with those of the people around us (including family members).

This explains the title of his essay: ‘Self-Reliance’ is about relying on one’s own sense of oneself, and having confidence in one’s ideas and opinions. In a famous quotation, Emerson asserts: ‘In every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.’

But if we reject those thoughts when they come to us, we must suffer the pangs of envy of seeing the same thoughts we had (or began to have) in works of art produced by the greatest minds. This is a bit like the phenomenon known as ‘I wish I’d thought of that!’, only, Emerson argues, we did think of it, or something similar. But we never followed through on those thoughts because we weren’t interested in examining or developing our own ideas that we have all the time.

In ‘Self-Reliance’, then, Emerson wants us to cultivate our own minds rather than looking to others to dictate our minds for us. ‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,’ he argues. For Emerson, our own minds are even more worthy of respect than actual religion.

Knowing our own minds is far more valuable and important than simply letting our minds be swayed or influenced by other people. ‘It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion’, Emerson argues, and ‘it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.’

In other words, most people are weak and think they know themselves, but can easily abandon all of their principles and beliefs and be swept up by the ideas of the mob. But the great man is the one who can hold to his own principles and ideas even when he is the one in the minority.

Emerson continues to explore this theme of conformity:

A man must consider what a blindman’s-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, – the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister?

He goes on:

This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.

Emerson then argues that consistency for its own sake is a foolish idea. He declares, in a famous quotation, ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.’

Instead, great men change and refine their opinions from one day to the next, as new evidence or new ideas come to light. Although this inconsistency may lead us to be misunderstood, Emerson thinks there are worse things to be. After all, great thinkers such as Pythagoras, Socrates, and even Jesus were all misunderstood by some people.

Emerson also argues that, just because we belong to the same social group as other people, this doesn’t mean we have to follow the same opinions. In a memorable image, he asserts that he likes ‘the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching’: that moment when everyone can have their own individual thoughts, before they are brought together by the priest and are told to believe the same thing.

Similarly, just because we share blood with our relatives, that doesn’t mean we have to believe what other family members believe. Rather than following their ‘customs’, ‘petulance’, or ‘folly’, we must be ourselves first and foremost.

The same is true of travel. We may say that ‘travel broadens the mind’, but for Emerson, if we do not have a sense of ourselves before he pack our bags and head off to new places, we will still be the same foolish person when we arrive at our destination:

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

Emerson concludes ‘Self-Reliance’ by urging his readers, ‘Insist on yourself; never imitate.’ If you borrow ‘the adopted talent’ of someone else, you will only ever be in ‘half possession’ of it, whereas you will be able to wield your own ‘gift’ if you take the time and effort to cultivate and develop it.

‘Self-Reliance’: analysis

Although some aspects of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s argument in ‘Self-Reliance’ may strike us as self-evident or mere common sense, he does take issue with several established views on the self in the course of his essay. For example, although it is often argued that travel broadens the mind, to Emerson our travels mean nothing if we have not prepared our own minds to respond appropriately to what we see.

And although many people might argue that consistency is important in one’s thoughts and opinions, Emerson argues the opposite, asserting that it is right and proper to change our opinions from one day to the next, if that is what our hearts and minds dictate.

Similarly, Emerson also implies, at one point in ‘Self-Reliance’, that listening to one’s own thoughts should take precedence over listening to the preacher in church.

It is not that he did not believe Christian teachings to be valuable, but that such preachments would have less impact on us if we do not take the effort to know our own minds first. We need to locate who we truly are inside ourselves first, before we can adequately respond to the world around us.

In these and several other respects, ‘Self-Reliance’ remains as relevant to our own age as it was to Emerson’s original readers in the 1840s. Indeed, perhaps it is even more so in the age of social media, in which young people take selfies of their travels but have little sense of what those places and landmarks really mean to them.

Similarly, Emerson’s argument against conformity may strike us as eerily pertinent to the era of social media, with its echo chambers and cultivation of a hive mind or herd mentality.

In the last analysis, ‘Self-Reliance’ comes down to trust in oneself as much as it does reliance on oneself. Emerson thinks we should trust the authority of our own thoughts, opinions, and beliefs over the beliefs of the herd.

Of course, one can counter such a statement by pointing out that Emerson is not pig-headedly defending the right of the individual to be loudly and volubly wrong. We should still seek out the opinions of others in order to sharpen and test our own. But it is important that we are first capable of having our own thoughts. Before we go out into the world we must know ourselves, and our own minds. The two-word axiom which was written at the site of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece had it right: ‘Know Thyself.’

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