"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." This essay is an analysis into the nature of the “aboriginal self on which a universal reliance may be grounded.”
The first hint of the philosophy that would become "Self-Reliance" was presented by Ralph Waldo 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!"
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. Emerson helped start the beginning of the Transcendentalist movement in America. "Self-Reliance" is one of Emerson’s most famous essays. Emerson wrote on “individualism, personal responsibility, and nonconformity.”
"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. He says that only a man who is self-reliant will be successful and any outside influences would take away from personal satisfaction. Emerson claims that examples of people who trusted themselves above all else include Moses, Plato, and John Milton. He then goes on to highlight the value of individual expression. Emerson writes that a man should follow what he thinks in order to discover his own path in life. When a person follows another person’s path instead of his own, he feels dispirited and small. An example that he states is a person hears some idea they had thought in their mind said by another person.
Emerson says that a man cannot bluntly obey society if he wants to follow his own expression. “No government or church can explain a man’s heart to him, and so each individual must resist institutional authority.” 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…with consistency a great soul simply has nothing to do." 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 should not worry that he will be misunderstood or thought less of because his opinions changed. He writes, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” 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. He also states how a man should still follow his own path even if other people feel offended by this idea. He writes, “My life is for itself”, “and not for a spectacle” emphasizing the idea of not following what other people think, adding to the idea that this compromises their individual values. Emerson wrote that if a person were self-reliant, he would have “consistent access to survival.” He mentions how family, work, and society can hinder the ability for a man to thrive. He says that they can only stimulate his own thinking, not teach him anything.
The essay then discusses of the value of self-worth. Emerson says one should not overly admire a great person from the past. 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." He states that historically great men are not any more important than the present men, but they serve as examples of how to trust oneself. Individuals should speak their ideas instead of quoting the words of historical people because it will not help one understand his own inspiration. Emerson describes a self-reliant man as someone who is not afraid to speak his mind and truth to anyone, resilient, optimistic, quick-thinking, and changes himself when he is inspired by himself. A self-reliant man does not like to travel. Emerson thinks that all truths could be found where a person was and he did not have to travel to gain anything. He says, "I shun my father and mother...when my genius comes." He continues to say, "I cannot sell my liberty and my power to save their sensibility."
Emerson concludes by saying that as society gains, it also loses simultaneously. He writes “Society is a wave”, “The waves move onward, but the water of which it is composed does not.” He explains how in order to be happy and peaceful, one should not care about the consumerism but should focus on his own situation. He ends with “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
Throughout this essay, Emerson argues against conformity with the world. He argues how people should not conform to what other people in society think, but instead he should transform society with his thoughts. 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 order to bring satisfaction to one’s self.
- Individual Authority: Emerson mentions that citizens control the government so they have control. He also mentions how “nothing has authority over the self.” He says, “History cannot bring enlightenment; only individual searching can.” He believes that truth is inside a person and this is authority, not institutions like religion.
- Nonconformity: Emerson states, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." He wants people to do what they think is right no matter what others think.
- Solitude and the Community: Emerson wrote how the community is a distraction to self-growth, by friendly visits, and family needs. He advocates more time being spent reflecting on one’s self. This can also happen in the community by a strong self-confidence. This would help not sway from his beliefs in groups of people.
- Spirituality: Truth is within one’s self. Emerson posits that reliance upon institutionalized religion hinders the ability to grow mentally as an individual.
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 but misquotes the line, and misattributes 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. This quote was also mentioned in the film What's Up, Doc?
Also in Dream a Little Dream.
The writer Isaac Asimov adopted the habit of writing "Emerson!" on galley proofs when an editor questioned the consistency of different parts of a story with each other. This is "consistency" used in a different sense from the original. In notes to the collection of detective stories Asimov's Mysteries he relates how another author introduced him to the quote.
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- Warren, Joyce (1984). "Transcendentalism and the Self: Ralph Waldo Emerson". pp. 208–211.
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- O'Sullivan, Michael (August 28, 1998). "'Next Stop Wonderland'". The Washington Post.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Text of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance"
- "Out of Panic, 'Self-Reliance'" by Harold Bloom, New York Times, October 12, 2008