"Self-Reliance" is an 1841 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 their 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.”
The Transcendentalist movement flourished in New England, and proposed a revolutionarily new philosophy of life. This new philosophy drew upon old ideas of Romanticism, Unitarianism, and German Idealism. Some of these ideas pertained closely to the values of America at the time. These values included nature, individualism, and reform, and can be noted in the essay “Self Reliance,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In this essay, Emerson states his values and incorporates them into his philosophy of self-reliance. In the past 170 years, some of the ideas stated by Emerson in his literary work “Self-Reliance” have weathered the test of time. However, since his archaic examples no longer apply to modern life, other sources of transcendentalism must be found to sustain the ideas. Such strongholds of ideas may be scarce, but they do exist in the form of environmentalists and hard working people. Contrarily, other modern barriers have risen, and impede the validity of the original transcendentalist values of “Self-Reliance.” While the ideals of “Self-Reliance” fit well with Emerson’s audience of the “ancient” time, some aspects of his work need alterations in order to totally relate to a contemporary teenager. In the essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson elaborates upon his idea of self-reliance with the incorporation of major themes. For example, when Emerson discusses the conformity and consistency issues of people, he explains how most people act like lemmings, and also how they only trust their successful past actions, rather than exploring new paths. Emerson then ties these issues to people’s lack of self-trust of their intuition, or the innermost part of people that guides the way in life.
- 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 counsels his readers 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.
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.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) Bartleby.com, Inc., 1841.
- Baldwin, Neil (2005). The American Revelation. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 61–78.
- 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.
- Myerson, Joel (2000). Transcendentalism: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 318–339.
- Hacht, Anne, ed. (2007). "Major Works" Literary Themes for Students: The American Dream. Detroit: Gale. pp. 453–466. Retrieved November 25, 2014.
- O'Sullivan, Michael (August 28, 1998). "'Next Stop Wonderland'". The Washington Post.
- "PEP 0008 -- Style Guide for Python Code: A Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds". Python.org. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
|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
- Self-Reliance public domain audiobook at LibriVox