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Exploring the Significance of Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance"

Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" was initially published in 1841 as part of his Essays, First Series. This renowned essay is regarded as a uniquely American contribution to ethical thought, promoting the idea of trusting one's inner voice and cautioning against conformity and consistency. However, the true message of "Self-Reliance" is often misconstrued, with many of its famous lines taken out of context. In this article, we will delve into the main point of "Self-Reliance" and its significance in Transcendentalist ideology.

The Core Message of 'Self-Reliance': Believe in Yourself

In just two words, Emerson encapsulates the main message of his essay: "Believe in yourself." He believed that by breaking free from conformity and fear, individuals could cultivate confidence in their inner intuition. This concept is a fundamental aspect of Transcendentalism, which stresses the importance of personal choice and moral responsibility. Along with nature, this theme is central to Emerson's broader philosophy encompassing God, humanity, and the self.

Transcendentalism was a movement in the 19th century that placed a high value on the natural world and individual expression and choice.

An Overview of 'Self-Reliance'

Emerson reflects on the achievements of great artists, writers, philosophers, and prophets, noting that they all rejected tradition and spoke what they truly believed. He argues that we all have moments of brilliance and insight, but we often ignore or suppress them. As Emerson asserts, "There is a time in every person's education when they reach the conviction that envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide, and they must take themselves for better or worse, as their portion."

Emerson believes that envying others' accomplishments means denying our own potential, and imitating others silences our true selves. He suggests that this realization is universal and connects to his belief that humanity, God, and nature are all intertwined.

The Two Obstacles to Trusting Ourselves

Emerson identifies two primary obstacles that hinder us from trusting ourselves: conformity and consistency. Conformity is when we disregard our insights because they conflict with common beliefs and opinions. Emerson argues that tradition and societal norms often disguise negative behaviors and should not be the sole basis for determining what is good or bad.

He asserts that we are the ultimate judges of morality, stating "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature." To truly believe in ourselves, we must learn to disregard tradition and popular opinion when they clash with our personal convictions.

Consistency is the fear of contradicting something we have previously said or done. Emerson dismisses this fear, famously stating, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." He believes that consistency and the desire for validation limit us to a life of mediocrity and insignificance. In contrast, he argues that great actions often require inconsistency, which, in the grand scheme of things, will ultimately lead us in the right direction.

The Crucial Difference Between Intuition and Tuition

A vital distinction that Emerson makes in "Self-Reliance" is between intuition and tuition. Intuition, he believes, is the essence of genius, virtue, and life itself. It is instinctive and stems from within, making it "primary." On the other hand, tuition refers to anything we are taught by others. Emerson suggests that we often hold ourselves back, not just out of fear of judgment, but also due to excessive reverence for the past, books, and authority figures.

In Conclusion

Emerson's "Self-Reliance" is a powerful essay that encourages individuals to trust their inner voice and reject conformity and consistency. It is part of a larger Transcendentalist philosophy that emphasizes the importance of the natural world and individual expression and choice. By understanding the main message of "Self-Reliance" and its significance in Transcendentalism, we can better appreciate its lasting impact on American culture and thought.

The Power of Self-Reliance: Lessons From Emerson

It is a widely accepted belief that every person has the potential to lead their own life. The role of leaders or rulers is simply to recognize and acknowledge this inherent capability within each individual. Our own voices should carry just as much weight as those in positions of authority.

While books and individuals with strong moral values undoubtedly have their place in society, it is important to remember that we can learn from the past without blindly following it. History serves as a cautionary tale, a fable of those who came before us. But ultimately, it is up to each of us to forge our own paths and make our own choices. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in a hierarchy of virtue, but rather than one of domination or blind faith, he saw it as a relationship based on mutual recognition and respect.

Emerson acknowledges that following our intuition is not the only moral criterion to consider. We also have responsibilities to our family, friends, and society, but it is ultimately our duty to choose which obligations we wish to uphold. Giving in to external pressures, whether it be to pursue a certain career or marry a certain person, goes against our self-reliance and only serves to conform to societal expectations.

Self-reliance should not be confused with selfishness or self-centeredness. Emerson believed that we still have duties towards our loved ones and country, but it is up to us to decide the validity of those duties. In fact, Emerson provided an example of what a self-reliant person may look like - a resilient individual from New Hampshire or Vermont who explores various areas of interest without being tied down to one profession, and has the ability to bounce back from challenges.

In contrast, Emerson highlights the struggles faced by those who attend prestigious universities and feel like failures if they do not immediately achieve success. He also criticizes the mindset of entrepreneurs who see themselves as ruined after one failed business venture. According to Emerson, the sturdy, self-reliant individual is worth much more than a hundred individuals who conform to societal standards.

To truly achieve self-reliance, Emerson believes that four changes must occur. Firstly, religion must evolve. The traditional belief of a separation between humans and God leads to a devaluation of ourselves and an unhealthy approach to prayer - often begging or dwelling on regrets. Instead, Emerson suggests focusing on a higher perspective during prayer. Furthermore, religion should not be followed blindly, but rather used as inspiration and guidance in forming our own beliefs and thoughts.

Emerson also addresses the tendency to imitate in art and culture, which he sees as a barrier to self-reliance. Instead of constantly looking to the past for inspiration, he believes we should recognize our own unique abilities and contribute something new and original. In essence, Emerson's message can be summed up in one powerful statement - insist on yourself and refrain from imitation.

Similarly, Emerson criticizes the desire to travel as a form of escape or entertainment. He argues that our problems lie within ourselves, not in our geographical location, and that traveling is simply a futile attempt at running away from our true selves. Visiting historical sites in other countries is not the solution, and we should strive to make our own surroundings worth exploring.

Finally, Emerson highlights the danger of over-reliance on technology. While his examples may be based on the technology of his time, they are still relevant in the modern world. In many cases, we have become overly dependent on technology, which only serves to further hinder our ability to rely on ourselves.

To summarize, Emerson's essay reinforces the importance of self-reliance in our lives. It is not a selfish or self-centered concept, but rather a means of empowering ourselves and living a life true to our own beliefs and desires. By recognizing our own worth and potential, we can break free from societal norms and live a fulfilling and authentic life. As Emerson suggests, we must embrace our individualism and insist on ourselves in order to truly thrive.

The True Meaning of Self-Reliance According to Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a prominent 19th-century thinker, believed that while technology could bring about advancements in warfare, exploration, and science, it could also bring harm and hinder the progress of society. Instead of focusing solely on engineering better machines, Emerson urged individuals to prioritize their moral, spiritual, and cultural development.

Emerson argued that self-reliance did not mean being selfish or greedy. In fact, he believed that excessive focus on material possessions and wealth could prevent individuals from following their intuition. He encouraged people to shift their perspective on property, not identifying themselves with the things they owned, and instead focusing on their inner virtues as the true markers of their identity.

Individualism was a crucial theme in Emerson's essay 'Self-Reliance'. He believed that it was our inner voice, intuition, or sudden moments of inspiration that could lead to acts of courage, virtue, and genius. By trusting our intuition, we could tap into the divine within us and achieve greatness. This concept of individualism also required us to be non-conformists, standing firm in our convictions even if they went against the opinions of others.

Additionally, Emerson stressed the importance of consistency and understanding. Our intuition does not always follow a logical path and may even lead us to contradict our own beliefs and actions. However, Emerson argued that this was a part of being self-reliant, and we must embrace it in order to stay true to ourselves.

In order to achieve self-reliance, Emerson believed that individuals must cultivate themselves spiritually and intellectually. This entailed reducing our dependence on material possessions and being aware of how external influences shape our thoughts and decisions.

The Relevance and Significance of 'Self-Reliance'

During a time when America was trying to establish its own identity, 'Self-Reliance' encouraged individuals to break away from the cultural influences of Europe and embrace their unique inner voice. The ideas presented in this essay continue to resonate today and have become defining traits of American culture, partly due to Emerson's philosophy.

Unfortunately, the true meaning of self-reliance has been overlooked, and it is often associated with selfishness and greed. However, Emerson's message goes beyond material possessions and encourages individuals to rely on their inner virtues and intuition in order to achieve true greatness.

In the end, Emerson reminds us that genuine peace and success can only be attained by trusting ourselves and staying true to our principles. As we navigate through a constantly changing world, let us remember the timeless wisdom of 'Self-Reliance' and strive to cultivate our inner selves rather than just our external possessions.

The Definition of Self-Reliance

Self-reliance is the ability to trust oneself and follow one's inner voice or intuition, even if it goes against societal norms and expectations.

Emerson's Concept of Self-Reliance

To Emerson, self-reliance meant having the courage to listen to one's inner voice without fear of criticism from others. He believed that this was the only way to achieve greatness and originality in life.

Main Points of 'Self-Reliance'

The key takeaways of 'Self-Reliance' include the importance of trusting our intuition, the belief that our inner voice is a message from God, the hindrances of conformity and consistency, and the need for reform in education, religion, and culture.

The Meaning of the First Paragraph of 'Self-Reliance'

The opening paragraph of 'Self-Reliance' speaks of a "gleam of light" that exists within each of us, but only those who have the courage to believe in it can achieve greatness. Emerson encourages individuals to have faith in this inner light.

The Significance of Self-Reliance

Emerson believed that self-reliance was a crucial virtue for individuals to possess. He argued that it was only through self-reliance that one could achieve greatness and originality, regardless of their profession or social status.


  • Anastas, Benjamin. "The Foul Reign of Emerson's Self-Reliance." The New York Times. (2011).
  • Baym, N. (General Editor).The Norton Anthology of American Literature: A Timeless Collection
  • The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B, spanning the years 1820-1865, is an essential addition to any literature lover's bookshelf. First published in 1979 by W.W. Norton & Company, this anthology has been updated and expanded in its most recent edition from 2007.
  • This volume covers a pivotal time in American literature, encompassing the booming period of romanticism to the start of the Civil War. It features works from 68 authors, including well-known figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson, as well as lesser-known but equally influential voices.
  • One of the standout features of this anthology is its extensive range and variety. It includes not only works of poetry, from epic sagas to lyrical ballads, but also prose, including essays, letters, and short stories. This allows readers to fully immerse themselves in the diverse and rich literary landscape of the time period.
  • The volume is organized thematically, allowing for a deeper understanding of the social and cultural context of the literature. The included works explore a wide range of themes such as nature, individualism, love, and the human experience. This organization also allows for easy comparison and analysis of the different perspectives and styles of the authors.
  • A notable feature of this anthology is its inclusion of works by women and African American writers, often excluded from traditional literature collections. This gives readers a more comprehensive view of the literary landscape of the time, showcasing the diverse voices and perspectives of American writers.
  • The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B, is not only a collection of great literary works, but also a valuable resource for understanding the development and evolution of American literature. Its comprehensive range, thematic organization, and inclusion of diverse voices make it a must-have for any literature enthusiast.
  • Whether you are a student, scholar, or simply a lover of literature, this anthology is a timeless and essential addition to any library. Explore the works of some of the greatest American writers from the early 19th century and gain a deeper understanding of the cultural and social context that shaped their works.
  • Don't miss out on this impressive collection that continues to stand the test of time and serves as a testament to the enduring power and influence of American literature.
  • References:
    Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B 1820-1865. Norton, (2007).

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