R.W. Emerson's Self-Reliance
The essay has three major divisions: the importance of self-reliance (paragraphs 1-17), self-reliance and the individual (paragraphs 18-32), and self-reliance and society (paragraphs 33-50). As a whole, it promotes self-reliance as an ideal, even a virtue, and contrasts it with various modes of dependence or conformity. "Self-Reliance"
Paragraphs 1-17. The Importance of Self-Reliance.
Emerson begins his major work on individualism by asserting the importance of thinking for oneself rather than meekly accepting other people's ideas. As in almost all of his work, he promotes individual experience over the knowledge gained from books: "To believe that what is true in your private heart is true for all menthat is genius." The person who scorns personal intuition and, instead, chooses to rely on others' opinions lacks the creative power necessary for robust, bold individualism. This absence of conviction results not in different ideas, as this person expects, but in the acceptance of the same ideasnow secondhand thoughtsthat this person initially intuited. The lesson Emerson would have us learn? "Trust thyself," a motto that ties together this first section of the essay. To rely on others' judgments is cowardly, without inspiration or hope. A person with self-esteem, on the other hand, exhibits originality and is childlikeunspoiled by selfish needsyet mature. It is to this adventure of self-trust that Emerson invites us: We are to be guides and adventurers, destined to participate in an act of creation modeled on the classical myth of bringing order out of chaos. Although we might question his characterizing the self-esteemed individual as childlike, Emerson maintains that children provide models of self-reliant behavior because they are too young to be cynical, hesitant, or hypocritical. He draws an analogy between boys and the idealized individual: Both are masters of self-reliance because they apply their own standards to all they see, and because their loyalties cannot be coerced. This rebellious individualism contrasts with the attitude of cautious adults, who, because they are overly concerned with reputation, approval, and the opinion of others, are always hesitant or unsure; consequently, adults have great difficulty acting spontaneously or genuinely. Emerson now focuses his attention on the importance of an individual's resisting pressure to conform to external norms, including those of society, which conspires to defeat self-reliance in its members. The process of so-called "maturing" becomes a process of conforming that Emerson challenges. In the paragraph that begins with the characteristic aphorism "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist," he asserts a radical, even extreme, position on the matter. Responding to the objection that devotedly following one's inner voice is wrong because the intuition may be evil, he writes, "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature . . . the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it." In other words, it is better to be true to an evil nature than to behave "correctly" because of society's demands or conventions. The non-conformist in Emerson rejects many of society's moral sentiments. For example, he claims that an abolitionist should worry more about his or her own family and community at home than about "black folk a thousand miles off," and he chides people who give money to the poor. "Are they my poor?" he asks. He refuses to support morality through donations to organizations rather than directly to individuals. The concrete act of charity, in other words, is real and superior to abstract or theoretical morality. In a subdued, even gentle voice, Emerson states that it is better to live truly and obscurely than to have one's goodness extolled in public. It makes no difference to him whether his actions are praised or ignored. The important thing is to act independently: "What I must do is...
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