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Rhetorical Analysis of Emerson's "Self Reliance"

By aleax2358 Nov 18, 2013 1238 Words

On The Rhetoric of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”.
Ralph Waldo Emerson grew up in the town of Concord, Massachusetts with humble beginnings, but eventually managed to get into Harvard University and later went on to become an iconic and well-known American writer, essayist, and novelist. After reading a poem by a famous painter, he was inspired to write his well-known essay “Self-Reliance” in which he argues to the reader to trust themselves and to not conform to the standards of others. Through the use of the classical argument, brilliant imagery, parallelism, and many other rhetorical devices, Emerson makes such a convincing case that a person from almost any background would find it difficult to disagree with him.

The very first thing that Emerson attempts to argue is the importance of trusting your own mind, he writes: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -- that is genius.” (1) Through the parallel structure of “To believe”, this phrase immediately stands out to the reader and his point is made even clearer. Emerson continues: “…the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.”(1) These two sentences immediately grab the attention of the reader, especially anyone who has ever contemplated the mystery and awe of their own consciousness. Emerson makes a reference to three distinct great men in the past; a religious leader, a philosopher, and a poet; this is an example of the use of ethos because it gives him credibility as an intellectual and it connects to any reader who has studied these men.

Emerson starts a metaphor comparing thoughts to a flash of light through the use of words such as light, flashes, gleam, firmament, and lustre. Furthermore, this is also the first of many examples of Emerson’s most prominent rhetoric device, the use of vivid and original imagery. Now the reader can contemplate the idea he is proposing because they can easily picture it instead of struggling to analyze the argument. This is an example of pathos because it helps connect the reading to the audience. This theme of vivid light and holy imagery continues through the whole reading and this, as well as the many allusions to biblical figures and scripture lets us see that Emerson was a man influenced greatly by religion, which gives him credibility and connection to those in the audience who are also religiously inclined; which is very great use of the ethos argument.

Another example of ethos, imagery, and parallelism would be when Emerson begins to talk about the value of relying upon their own self. He writes: “A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.”(1) Again, the parallel structure of ‘no peace… no muse... no invention... no hope’ helps get our attention. He goes on to say “…no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”(1). In these two excerpts Emerson tries to convey the importance of hard work and making the best with what you have been given. This use of ethos lets us see that his arguments have good intentions and motives; his goal appears to be to inspire a work-ethic and a sense of pride in the audience. Also, the tone and connotations of the first sentence seem to invoke that feeling of shame and bitter taste in your mouth when someone takes a cheap shortcut instead of putting pride into their work, like binging on fast-food instead of preparing a nice meal for yourself.

One more topic that Emerson argues about is the virtue of non-conformity and the value of being able to change your mind as you learn and develop your ideas. He quotes “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” The use of rhythm and rhyme here helps make his point clear, and the metaphor of a hobgoblin allows you to see how vile Emerson thought mindless consistency really is. He also says “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. -- `Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' -- Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.” This is an example of the logos appeal, because these great thinkers became so by speaking their mind and creating new ideas, even if they contradicted themselves. Emerson also uses ethos here by borrowing the credibility of these great men.

One more example of a logical argument that Emerson uses is when he says: “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.””… the force of character is cumulative” (5) What he means by this is that your opinion on a matter might change slightly in the short term, but as you build and develop your ideas, the long-term conclusion becomes increasingly clear and consistent.. Emerson uses the metaphor of a ship changing its bearing many times a day but having an average consistent path. This is a logical and mathematical idea that he applies to a person’s character and thought patterns, and it will appeal to the logically minded audience.

The author’s thoughts throughout the essay are well organized and supported; he introduces an idea and backs it up repeatedly through the essay with many different examples. He tries to look at the same idea through different paradigms, and although it might seem repetitive at times, it’s never dull or boring because the same idea is presented with alternating points of view and original imagery. His tone stays pretty formal and personal but also consistent.

Overall, Emerson does a great job of using many different rhetorical and literary techniques. Ethos, logos, pathos, imagery, a neutral but energetic tone, rhyme and rhythm, analogies, counter-arguments, parallelism, narratives, allusions to biblical and historical figures, etc... His use of rhetorical devices appeals to a wide spectrum of individuals, it would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t partly agree to the ideas Emerson mentions. His ideas to trust oneself are relevant to the people in the past and present, and will still be relevant hundreds of years from now.

Sources:
Emerson, Ralph W. Self-Reliance. N.p.: n.p., n.d. PDF.
Jacobus, Lee A. "A World of Ideas." A World of Ideas: e-pages. Bedford St. Martins, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

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