October 04, 2004

Emerson's "Self-Reliance"

Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay elaborates further on the familiar Emersonian thesis - trust yourself. Twentieth-century Americans have frequently looked to Europe for cultural leadership, to learn what is "modern" and "progressive." In the 19th-century, however, Americans often saw themselves as the leaders of modernity and progress. Rather than critizing their countrymen for their unusually individualistic attitudes, a number of American thinkers eloquently viewed down upon their country for not being individualistic enough.

Like many social critics, Emerson faults others for failing to live up to and appreciate the importance of their own ideals, giving modern readers a remarkable perspective on 19th-century American culture. Note, that Emerson defends the personality traits that every creative human being must possess. A conformist merely repeats the techniques discovered by earlier innovators, but a creator boldly claims that he can do something better than everyone else preceding him. A creator is essentially someone who doubts the alleged wisdom of the status quo, and who has the courage to think matters through for himself.

A quote that I found interesting would be "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." I think Emerson believes to trust yourself, and everyone has his or her own personality, so by doing even the smallest tasks, you can still be true to yourself.

Emerson's individualism was uncommon even in his own time. Yet, he gave intellectual definition to a diffuse cultural tendency in need of a spokesman. Nineteenth-century Americans earned the world's respect with their business talent and inventiveness, but from the start world opinion berated them for their individualistic attitudes. What Emerson said to the world, in effect, was that individualism was the virtue that made Americans' - and all other - achievement possible.

"You may fulfil your round of duties by clearing yourself in the direct, or in the reflex way. Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat and dog; whether any of these can upbraid you. " This quote means to spend as much time with your love ones. Make sure there isn't any misunderstanding between your family, because you can suffer emotionally.

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance - a new respect for the divinity in man - must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.

Posted by NabilaUddin at October 4, 2004 09:54 PM

We need our individualists but I think we need out mediocre drones too. Imagine if we all stubbornly stuck to our own ideas and no one went along with anyone else! There is a message for everyone in Emerson's philosophy though. Be true to yourself. You can do this in the smallest of ways.

Posted by: Linda Fondrk at October 5, 2004 11:39 AM


I agree that we can be true in small ways, but also we need to time to undestand ourselves better, so I think we need to perform bigger tasks to accomplish that feeling.


Posted by: Nabila Uddin at October 5, 2004 12:13 PM

I don't think it much matters whether the tasks are small or large. As Emmerson says, you must act on what feels true to you. It could be as small an act as inviting an upopular child to your house or writing an editorial. Sometimes simply the word "no" is a huge act.

Posted by: Linda Fondrk at October 5, 2004 12:30 PM

hi friend,I'm a Chinese student major in something related to American literature,and here a problem rises in my mind about this masterpiece.Could you help share your answers to me through email?
For emerson comformity was not a desirable characteristic for one to have,Do you think there are times when comformity in desirable or even necessary?

Thanks a lot!

Posted by: hearn at January 8, 2006 02:19 AM
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