• Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age.”

Summary Overview

Ralph Waldo Emerson is perhaps the best-known early American philosopher. His system of beliefs—which came to be known as transcendentalism—emphasized the universality of the divine, the appreciation of nature as a manifestation of that divinity, and the importance of creativity as a means of worship. Self-Reliance, published in 1841, brought together some of the ideas Emerson had expressed in the years since he began his career as a secular public lecturer in 1833.

In a sense, Self-Reliance was a response to his critics, who considered him eccentric or even dangerously heretical. At a more basic level, it was an expression in one of his core beliefs—that spontaneous, free, and creative self-expression is actually a form of worshipping the universal divine. It was intended by the author to be a passionate defense of the basic human right of people to develop and express their own beliefs, free from external coercion, and an indictment of institutions that discourage this freedom.

Defining Moment

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had such a profound impact on American intellectual history, has always been regarded as a radical and a maverick, breaking with the conventions of his day to develop transcendentalism, a school of thought unlike any other known previously in the United States. Although there is no doubt that he was a great innovator, Emerson was also a product of his times. It is important to understand some of the ways Emerson’s thinking was shaped by his environment, and why the intellectuals of his day were so receptive to his ideas.

Emerson came from a long line of Unitarians, proponents of a theology that emphasized the singularity of God, rather than the Trinitarian view favored by the Catholic Church and the Church of England. Unitarianism first began as a theological movement in the seventeenth century. It gained more widespread appeal in post-Enlightenment England in the late eighteenth century and became a respected form of worship in the newly formed United States in the early nineteenth century. Unitarian thinkers questioned many of the supernatural beliefs of other branches of Christianity, including the divine origin of scripture and the virgin birth of Jesus. It emphasized the importance of a personal relationship with God and deemphasized the importance of ritual and clerical hierarchy.

Unitarianism in the United States mainly developed in New England, especially in Boston. As the son of the minister of Boston’s First Church, a leading Unitarian institution, Emerson grew up at the very epicenter of nineteenth-century American Unitarianism. The philosophy he developed—transcendentalism, with its emphasis on the divine as an all-pervasive force knowable through subjective appreciation of natural beauty—can in a very real way be read as a continuation of the Unitarian move away from the more mainstream belief in the supernatural and unknowable nature of God.

At the same time, political changes were unfolding in America that made the nation particularly receptive to Emerson’s philosophy. The elimination of severe property requirements for voters greatly expanded suffrage among adult men. As a result, there was an increasing emphasis on the power of the so-called common man. The 1820s and 1830s came to be known as the Jacksonian Era, after Andrew Jackson, president of the United States from 1829–1837.

The Jacksonian Era was actually a wider shift in political sentiment than the election of a single president, celebrating individual freedom and a potential for fresh beginnings on the American frontier. Although Emerson was based in New England, far from the great western frontier itself, he drew attention to the importance of furthering intellectual frontiers, and defending individual freedom. Just as pioneer fever was sweeping the nation, Emerson came on the scene with his groundbreaking transcendental philosophy.

Author Biography

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803. He was the fourth child of William Emerson and Ruth Haskins Emerson. William Emerson was the Unitarian minister of Boston’s First Church, well respected but never wealthy, and his mother also enjoyed a reputation for her deep sense of piety.

William Emerson died in 1811, when Emerson was eight years old. Ruth opened a boarding house to support her children, and the family continued to receive material and emotional support from their relatives. His paternal aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, was particularly devoted to young Emerson , and her love of written correspondence and journaling sparked his lifelong interest in writing.

Emerson began school the year after his father died, at the age of nine. He first attended Boston Public Latin School before moving on to Harvard College when he was fourteen. Although he was considered a precocious and intelligent boy, he never did particularly well in school, because he only applied himself to those subjects that interested him.

In 1821, Emerson dabbled in an educational career after graduating from Harvard, but teaching did not suit him. He returned to Harvard to pursue a degree in divinity. In 1829, he began work as the Unitarian minister at Boston’s Second Church. This career path came naturally to him, not only because he was following in his father’s footsteps, but also because he had gained some amount of celebrity for delivering powerful sermons as a university student.

In September of 1829, he married Ellen Tucker, the daughter of a Boston merchant, but Ellen died of tuberculosis in February of 1831, less than a year and a half after their marriage. This tragic turn greatly affected Emerson and inflamed his already smoldering doubts about the presence of a divine being as described in the Bible. In the year that followed, he became vocal about his inability to continue performing the ritual duties of his clerical office, for which he was soundly chastised by his beloved and firmly pious aunt. He finally quit his position at Boston’s Second Church in October of 1832.

In a mood of frustration and despair, Emerson sold his house and went to Europe. He worked his way through Italy, France, and Great Britain, developing a love for philosophy, botany, and zoology. In Britain, he became friends with several of the literary notables of the day, including essayist Thomas Carlyle and the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

When Emerson returned to the United States in the autumn of 1833, he began giving lectures on the life sciences and literature, and quickly gained a reputation as a strong and interesting public speaker. He remarried, to a woman named Lydia Jackson, and moved to Concord, Massachusetts. In the years that followed, Emerson’s lectures became more philosophical in nature, incorporating many of the ideas he had encountered in Europe, especially the idealism of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s idealism, which itself was influenced by Plato and mystical Hinduism, held that the human world was fundamentally shaped by human ideas, rather than innate order or divine intention. By 1836, Emerson was primarily engaged in lecturing about a new American philosophy, called transcendentalism, that was opposed to organized religion; it supported the subjective rather than objective appreciation of art, freedom in creative expression, and a belief in the natural divinity of all things.

In 1836, supporters of this new philosophy formed an organization called the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Four years later, the club began its regular publication, called the Dial. Transcendentalism was destined to have a powerful impact on American social thought in the decades that followed, and is seen by many historians as sparking an intellectual and artistic renaissance in pre–Civil War America.

For the rest of his long life, Emerson worked as a touring lecturer, mainly in New England, but also in California, Europe, and Egypt. He remained friends with a myriad of the most notable scholars and activists of his day, including Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. Emerson died of pneumonia on April 27, 1882, and was buried in Concord, Massachusetts. He is widely remembered as America’s most prominent early philosopher.

Document Analysis

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance is an amalgamation of thoughts and insights from speeches he had given over the years. A meandering and at times redundant document, it expresses the loosely related set of beliefs that came to be known as the philosophy of transcendentalism. In particular, it presents arguments in favor of casting off the limitations of social conformity and living according to one’s own character and sincere beliefs. In Emerson’s view, doing so is not only the path to achieving greatness, but is the best way to get in touch with the divine energy which informs all of nature. Self-Reliance is a critique of contemporary intellectual trends as well, as the author feels that many of the movements current in his time were blocking people from the greater goal of living according to their natural characters.

Emerson begins Self-Reliance by relating that he recently read an unconventional commentary by a famous painter, and that this called to mind an important truth. He explains that he was reminded that true genius comes from the bold assertion of sincere beliefs in a way that transcends the content of the expressed words themselves. He gives the examples of Moses, John Milton, and Plato as great thinkers, saying that they came to be highly regarded not because they expressed widely known and accepted truths, but because they were brave enough to state what they actually thought, regardless of established social conventions.

People everywhere have the ability to independently come to the same brilliant conclusions as the so-called great thinkers. They shy away from expressing such ideas, however, because they assume that they are not worthy of such a task. That, Emerson explains, is why it is so common to have a glimmer of recognition when reading works of acknowledged genius, since they reflect thoughts that many have had, but were not bold enough to fully develop or state in an explicit manner.

Emerson goes on to describe that there comes a point in the intellectual maturation process when one realizes that there is no point in being envious of others. Attempting to copy the achievements of other people is a fundamentally flawed tactic for gaining success, since it goes against one’s own unique personal nature. Instead, it is prudent for people to accept the good and bad points of their own nature and use that knowledge as the basis for self-expression. Since all people are different, each personality is a new creative force in the world; it is therefore an affront to God to ignore the potential for iconoclastic self-expression. Doing sincere and exuberant work while aware of that uniqueness is the greatest way to achieve happiness and give praise to the divine creator.

The best course of action is for all people to accept who they are and where they find themselves, both geographically and socially. Then, they should trust in the divine force that arranged things in such a manner to look after them as they do their work and, most importantly, trust in themselves. That, Emerson argues, is what all great thinkers in history have done. God has a plan, and each person will play a role in it, so there is no need to hide from it or be afraid of it as it unfolds.

Nature provides many examples of the power provided by not second-guessing one’s own abilities. It is seen, Emerson contends, in babies, who simply act as they want without consideration of social constrictions. He says that interacting with babies disrupts the typical process of self-doubt, as evidenced by people lapsing into cheerful baby talk at the sight of an infant, which would be highly embarrassing in other contexts. Emerson also believes that this power to resist conformity is also seen in children. He gives the example of boys, who have an ability to unhesitatingly judge others as they see them, and to voice these opinions without shame. Adults have forgotten that ability, and there is no elixir of forgetfulness to help unlearn our inhibitions and take us back to that more innocent state.

Emerson then says that society itself is antithetical to the free development of its members. It prevents people from growing beyond their self-doubts to a true adulthood of self-acceptance. As he says, “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” and ignore the strictures imposed by the social contract to revel in his own freedom of expression. That, he explains, is the ultimate goal of self-reliance—to rid oneself of the inhibitions of conventional thinking to reach real emotional maturity.

He then takes the highly controversial position of admonishing the reader that “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” a sentiment that would certainly have been perceived as dangerously heretical by most people of his day. He furthers this snub of orthodoxy by saying that a friend challenged him on this point, asking him to consider that his instincts might be from the devil rather than God. In what would be construed as blasphemy by nearly all Christians of his time, Emerson rhetorically retorted that he did not think this was the case, but “if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”

Emerson justifies his highly unorthodox position by stating that good and evil are merely labels, used by society to mask people’s true nature and intentions. He gives examples of a bigot who takes up the cause of abolition for people in other countries, but acts with intolerance at home. Such a man, he states, is not to be praised for his theoretical stand against slavery, for his actual behavior has not changed at all. Emerson also lashes out against impersonal acts of charity—such as giving money to anonymous relief organizations—as an ultimately hollow way for people to appear virtuous to one another. He endorses a more sincere and genuine approach to helping fellow human beings, one that shows people as intrinsically virtuous, rather than merely appearing virtuous through meaningless actions.

Taking the easy path of conformity weakens a person. Those who follow the forms of religious rituals, even if they do not really believe them, use their time in a wasteful manner. People who adhere to religious orthodoxy are not worth speaking with, because they cannot ever take a novel position on the subject of faith. Emerson compares those who cling to social norms to people blinded by tying a handkerchief around their eyes, they are willingly blinding themselves to the complex beauty of the world.

However, it is very difficult to go against social norms. There is strong pressure to conform, and those who do not are exposed to the displeasure and scorn of their peers. Moreover, people expect one another to act consistently. It becomes challenging for a person to take on new ideas or modes of expression without making friends suspicious and confused.

Emerson describes the drive to maintain consistency in order to appease social norms as “foolish” and “the hobgoblin of little minds.” People should be free to speak their minds each day, and not be afraid that it might go against something they might have said on another day. He also argues that being misunderstood is no shame. Some of the greatest scientific innovators, including Copernicus, Galileo, and Pythagoras, were not understood in their lives; nor were the great religious and philosophical leaders, such as Martin Luther, Jesus, and Socrates.

The most important reason to not be too concerned with conformity is the fact that nobody can truly deny the force of their own character. To be honest and forthright is the best approach, for living in a sincere manner will allow a person to accomplish that which they are truly able to in this lifetime. Emerson compares the movements of a sincerely lived life to the course of a ship. Although it is continuously making tacks and adjustments, its movements cumulatively show its overall course. Emerson then states that all institutions are actually the long-term legacies of individuals living sincere lives. For example, Christianity is the legacy of the sincere life lived by Jesus, and the Reformation was the legacy of Martin Luther’s force of character. People should therefore understand the power that a single person has to help shape the world and be confident and proud to express their sincere thoughts.

The key to being fully human, in Emerson’s view, is to embrace what he calls spontaneity or instinct. It is possible to use this unconquerable force to live an independent life. Guiding daily actions by reference to these forces is living according to the character of one’s own soul, and this individual soul is connected to and reflective of the divine spirit.

Adults, unlike children, have learned the demeaning habit of expressing their beliefs by referring to well-known and accepted thinkers; instead of stating their opinions, they cloak them in the opinions of respected scholars and leaders. Emerson says it is unnecessary to live by constant reference to the past. He gives the poetic example of roses—they are growing now, and are beautiful in their own right, without reference to past roses.

Emerson’s next theme is among the most radical of this eminently unorthodox piece. He puts forth the mystical idea that all existence is actually the manifestation of one underlying force, which he names “the ONE” or the “Supreme Cause.” God, in this view, does not exist wholly outside of humans, but within them as well, as in all aspects of the natural order. Living a life of self-reliance, rather than following social norms of right and wrong, Emerson goes on to explain, requires a person to be somewhat godlike. Such socially unencumbered people have confidence in their own abilities to judge the best courses of action.

Part of Emerson’s philosophy, and an important aspect of Self-Reliance, is the romanticizing of rural life as producing more sincere and stronger people than urban life. He says there are countless young men from New York or Boston who have brilliant university careers, but consider themselves failures if they do not hold important offices one year after graduating. He contrasts these “city dolls” with their hardier counterparts from Vermont or New Hampshire who make their livings as they can, by farming, running a team, peddling, teaching school, working at a newspaper, or being a congressman, and simply take each step in life as it comes. The latter type of person—through the types of challenges natural to life in a more rural setting, Emerson believes—is better able to tap into their own inner strengths.

Emerson is critical of mainstream religion as antithetical to true self-reliance. Most people’s prayers, for example, seek to compel some external supernatural force to intervene on their own behalf for the achievement of selfish goals. Emerson calls such prayers “vicious,” especially if they are focused on material gain. Instead, he endorses a kind of prayer that meditates on the divine goodness behind mundane realities. These “true prayers” seek to bring the individual into a conscious atonement with God; this allows the better understanding of human nature as part of the greater natural order, and therefore as a manifestation of the divine creator.

Self-Reliance is also against the idea of religious denominations, or creeds, as the author calls them. First of all, they limit people’s perception of the divine, as those of a specific creed think that they have to adhere to the established principles that comprise it. This clouds the perception of new things. Second, denominations unnaturally segregate people, emphasizing their differences and keeping them apart from those of other denominations.

Emerson also takes aim at the current trend of American people going traveling to destinations such as England, Greece, Italy, and Egypt. This is an unusual target for criticism, since he himself was clearly transformed by his travels, which took him to the very destinations that he names as popular among the American intellectual masses. He goes on to explain, however, that it is not travel itself that bothers him, but travel as entertainment. Those people who engage in a journey for such trivial purposes, he contends, are likely to be interested in imitating what has already been done in the world of art and philosophy, instead of being open to the experiences that will allow them to develop their own ideas. The popularity of travel as entertainment, Emerson believes, is a symptom of the intellectual restlessness of the day. It shows that people are not content in their own lives and worlds, but are hungry to experience cultures that they perceive to be categorically different and more authentic.

Emerson segues from this discussion of authentic versus inauthentic culture into a controversial commentary about the nature of human culture. Contradicting the accepted truth of his day that human culture progressed from primitive to advanced or modern, Emerson declares that “society never advances.” Instead, he says, it shifts and morphs, but does not categorically change. As it gains some attributes, it loses others.

He gives a series of examples to demonstrate his point. In one, he says that although the aborigine from New Zealand lacks the clothing and material trappings of the American, he has a strength of body and robustness of health that the American has lost. Technology has allowed for some conveniences, but it also has resulted in unintended social harms that, on balance, render it a neutral force in providing better lives for people. Although this point could be seen as a romanticizing of traditional cultures, it is more fair to say that it is an insistence on the equality of all people.

This conclusion is underscored in Emerson’s next line of reasoning, in which he contends that people are not now any different than people were in the past. The intellectual and religious leaders of the past are not any different, deep down, than modern people. What those who achieved greatness have in common is their ability to think for themselves and act according to their own consciences, and this is exactly the track to greatness available for people in the present age.

The last thought in Self-Reliance is a criticism of blind materialism. Emerson explains that people have a tendency to ignore who they are, and instead focus on what they have. Due to a fear of losing their material wealth, people construct governments to protect them, and these governments insist on a level of social conformity that is akin to slavery. The way to break free of the conceptual chains of this conformity is for people to be themselves, no matter what good or bad fortune befalls them.

Essential Themes

Between 1833 and 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson worked as a traveling lecturer in the northeastern United States. Around 1836, he began to primarily speak about transcendentalism. This school of thought was inspired by a number of philosophies and systems of belief, including his own Unitarian tradition, German idealism as expressed by Immanuel Kant, the insights of Plato, and the revelations of mystical Hinduism.

Self-Reliance is widely considered to be the fullest expression of his transcendentalist philosophy. It is florid in tone, prone to digression, and repeats several key refrains. In sum, it is structured more like a speech than a written work, and may be difficult for modern readers to digest. Moreover, its conclusions may seem less profound new truths than statements of common sense to present-day readers, but that is precisely because of the massive effect it had on American culture.

The chief point of Self-Reliance, voiced repeatedly throughout the piece, is the importance of free self-expression. There is strong social pressure to conform, to resist saying anything unorthodox, and to maintain consistent philosophical positions in order to meet the expectations of others. However, Emerson dramatically declared, individuals should trust in their own insights and creative powers. All great human achievements, the author argues, have been made by those people able to come up with new and unique insights.

Emerson glorified, and indeed deified, the individual. He saw true individuality as both the source of all genius as well as the best way to worship the divine power which—he controversially argued—is the true and unifying nature of all things. This view that the divine is not an external, supernatural power, but instead is a natural phenomenon that exists in all aspects of nature, including the human individual, did much to chip away at the monopoly on faith enjoyed by the Christian church in nineteenth century society. Transcendentalism can be seen as an early form of both American deism and of cultural humanism.

In Self-Reliance, Emerson also challenged the popularly held belief that the urban and the modern is always superior to the rural and traditional. He spoke disparagingly of the weakness of character of young men born in Boston and New York, contrasting them with the heartiness of their counterparts in Vermont and New Hampshire. He also gave examples of how culture does not progress as it changes from primitive to contemporary, but argued that present-day or civilized people have lost some of the strengths of their tribal counterparts while gaining certain material comforts.

The key themes of Self-Reliance inspired and were echoed by some of the most influential writers in nineteenth-century America. Chief among those touched by Emerson’s philosophy were Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, who helped to shape the literary scene in the United States. As a key expression of Emerson’s transcendentalist ideas, Self-Reliance transmitted the author’s insights to his contemporary audience, challenging many widely held beliefs and ushering in a new age of American creative achievement.

Bibliography
  • Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge: Belknap, 2003. Print.
  • Carpenter, Frederick. Emerson Handbook. New York: Hendricks, 1953. Print.
  • Cole, Phyllis. Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
  • Garnett, Richard. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. London: Scott, 1888. Print.
  • MacLear, J. F. Church and State in the Modern Age: A Documentary History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.
  • Myerson, Joel. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Descriptive Biography. Pittsburg: U of Pittsburg P, 1982. Print.
  • Van Cramphout, Gustav. Emerson’s Ethics. Colombia: U of Missouri P, 1999. Print.
Additional Readings
  • Cayton, Mary. Emerson’s Emergence: Self and Society in the Transformation of New England, 1800–1845. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998. Print.
  • Smith, Harmon. My Friend, My Friend: The Story of Thoreau’s Relationship with Emerson. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1999. Print.
  • Trent, William. A History of American Literature, 1607–1865. New York: Appleton, 1920. Print.
  • Versluis, Arthur. The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.
  • Whicher, George. The Transcendentalist Revolt against Materialism. Lexington: Heath, 1949. Print.

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