“Self-Reliance” was first published as part of Emerson’s 1841 collection, First Series. This essay, along with others, allowed Emerson to help start the Transcendentalist movement in America. “Self Reliance” may have had its foundations in Emerson’s sermons and lectures which he delivered in 1830 and from 1836-37 at Boston’s Masonic Temple.
“Self-Reliance” argues for each individual’s need to avoid conformity and false consistency and to instead follow their own instincts and ideas. Emerson focuses on a number of themes vital to the transcendental movement.
First, he focuses on individual authority, which states that the citizens control the government and that “nothing has authority over the self.” The individual is the true master of the self. He also believes that revering dead intellects, artists, and leaders from history is not helpful, because “History cannot bring enlightenment; only individual searching can.
Next, he argues against conformity. According to Emerson, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” An individual must do what they think is right, even if others claim that it is wrong.
Similar to points he makes in “Nature,” Emerson argues that community is a distraction to self-growth and instead encourages more solitude, which would allow individuals more time to self-reflect and self-search.
Finally, spirituality is a major factor in Emerson’s thinking. For Emerson, the ultimate truth can only be find within the self. Institutional religion hinders the ability for individual growth and true knowledge of the self.
Notes & Quotes
- I’m very interested in Emerson’s role as a creator of American culture, particularly considering “Self-Reliance.” There are a lot of “American values” presented in this essay- the power and rights of the individual, self-authority, and nonconformity. I think his focus on solitude is also interesting, considering the role that the young nation’s relative solitude from the civilization and culture of Europe plays in the American gothic tradition. Here, however, solitude is something positive. I also think that his insistence that living constantly within communities can have the negative effect of hindering a person’s self-discovery. This reminds me of the American gothic mode’s fear of porosity and negative influence and contagion amongst the young democracy.
- His disdain for the idolization of history takes a decidedly American turn when he describes European methods of architecture:
But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the travelling of the mind? Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and the Distant.The soul created the arts wherever they have flourished. It was in his own mind that the artist sought his model. It was an application of his own thought to the thing to be done and the conditions to be observed. And why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model? Beauty, convenience, grandeur of thought, and quaint expression are as near to us as to any, and if the American artist will study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of the government, he will create a house in which all these will find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also.
- I’m also interested in discussing Emerson’s use of gendered pronouns. Of course, it’s not unusual for a 19th century writer to exclusively use “he” to represent all of humanity, however, Emerson chooses one moment to choose to a feminine adjective:
It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. Their rage is decorous and prudent, for they are timid as being very vulnerable themselves. But when to their feminine rage the indignation of the people is added, when the ignorant and the poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.
Here he describes the anger and censure that nonconformity may receive from the public. While it may be easy to deal with the anger of men in power, it is far more difficult to remain true to one’s beliefs in the face of the “feminine rage” of the masses. This rage is conformist in nature, so, as Emerson notes, it is easily put on and taken off, it is not true. Is this what makes it feminine? Or is rage itself a feminine passion?
“Self-Reliance” (1841) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.