Self-Reliance is an essay written by American transcendentalist philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. It contains the most thorough statement of one of Emerson's recurrent themes, the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency, and follow his or her own instincts and ideas. It is the source of one of Emerson's most famous quotations: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
The first hint of the philosophy that would become Self-Reliance was presented by Emerson as part of a sermon in September 1830 a month after his first marriage. His wife Ellen was sick with tuberculosis and, as Emerson's biographer Robert D. Richardson wrote, "Immortality had never been stronger or more desperately needed!" She died at the age of 19 on February 8, 1831.
From 1836 into 1837, Emerson presented a series of lectures on the philosophy of history at Boston's Masonic Temple. These lectures were never published separately, but many of his thoughts in these were later used in Self-Reliance and several other essays. Later lectures by Emerson led to public censure of his radical views, the staunch defense of individualism in "Self-Reliance" being a possible reaction to that censure.
Self-Reliance was first published in his 1841 collection, Essays: First Series.
Self-Reliance is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s compilation of many years’ works and the archetype for his transcendental philosophies. Emerson presupposes that the mind is initially subject to an unhappy conformism. Throughout the essay he gives a defense for his famous catch-phrase "Trust thyself". This argument follows three major points: the self-contained genius, the disapproval of the world, and the value of self-worth.
In the first section, Emerson argues that inside of each person is genius. 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." The remainder of this section is spent exploring this concept. Emerson claims that examples of people who trusted themselves above all else include Moses, Plato, and Milton.
Emerson continues by decrying the effects that society has upon the individual. He says that when people are influenced by society, they will compromise their values in order to retain a foolish character to the world. He states: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." When a man adheres blindly to thoughts or opinions he has vocalized in the past, purely for the sake of seeming true to his principles, Emerson argues that he violates his nature. A man must be willing, every day, to open his consciousness to his intuition, whether or not what it tells him is in conflict with his past conclusions.
The essay concludes with a discussion of the value of self-worth. Emerson states that "man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage." This section contains arguments which are similar to the modern ideals of self-esteem being based upon a person’s intrinsic character rather than any external party.
Throughout this essay, Emerson argues against conformity with the world. He gives an archetype for his own transcendental beliefs, but also argues for his slogan "trust thyself". To follow Emerson's self-reliant credo fully, one must learn to hear and obey what is most true within one's heart, and both think and act independent of popular opinion and social pressure.
In popular culture
Emerson's quote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," is a running joke in the 1998 film Next Stop Wonderland. A single woman (portrayed by Hope Davis), who is familiar with the Emerson quote, goes on dates with several men, each of whom tries to impress her by quoting the line, except they misattribute it to W.C. Fields, Karl Marx, or Cicero. The woman finally meets a man (portrayed by Alan Gelfant) who correctly attributes the quote to Emerson.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) Bartleby.com, Inc., 1841.
- Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 99. ISBN 0-520-08808-5.
- McAleer, John. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984: 105. ISBN 0-316-55341-7.
- Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 257. ISBN 0-520-08808-5
- Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 300. ISBN 0-520-08808-5.
- Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003: 64. ISBN 0-674-01139-2.
- Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 322. ISBN 0-520-08808-5.
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- Text of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, Self-Reliance
- "Out of Panic, Self-Reliance" by Harold Bloom, New York Times, October 12, 2008