emerson essay self reliance summary


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Emerson opens his essay with three epigraphs that preview the theme of self-reliance in the essay. He then begins the essay by reflecting on how often an individual has some great insight, only to dismiss it because it came from their own imagination. According to Emerson, we should prize these flashes of individual insight even more than those of famous writers and philosophers; it is the mature thinker who eventually realizes that originality of thought, rather than imitation of what everyone else believes, is the way to greatness.

Emerson then argues that the most important realization any individual can have is that they should trust themselves above all others. Babies, children, and even animals are intuitively aware of this fact, according to Emerson, and so are worthy of imitation. Emerson sees self-reliance as a characteristic of boys, too, with their independent attitudes, lack of respect for authority, and willingness to pass judgment on everything they encounter.

Emerson then shifts to a discussion of the relationship between the individual and society by noting that when we are alone, we can be like babies or children, but when we get out into the world, that little voice inside that carries our truth slips away. Emerson argues that people must embrace nonconformity to recover their self-reliance, even if doing so requires the individual to reject what most people believe is goodness. Emerson believes that there is a better kind of virtue than the opinions of respected people or demands for charity for the needy. This goodness comes from the individual’s own intuition, and not what is visible to society.

Besides, states Emerson, living according to the world’s notion of goodness seems easy, and living according to one’s own notions of goodness is easy in solitude, but it takes a truly brave person to live out one’s own notions of goodness in the face of pressure from society. Although it might seem easier to just go along with the demands of society, it is harder because it scatters one’s force. Aware that being a nonconformist is easier argued than lived, Emerson warns that the individual should be prepared for disapproval from people high and low once he or she finally refuses to conform to society’s dictates. It will be easy to brush off the polite disapproval of cultivated people, but the loud and rough disapproval of common people, the mob, will require all of the individual’s inner resources to face down.

The other thing Emerson sees as a roadblock to the would-be nonconformist is the world’s obsession with consistency. Really though, he argues, why should you be bound at all by your past actions or fear contradicting yourself? Emerson notes that society has made inconsistency into a devil, and the result is small-mindedness. He uses historical and religious examples to point out that every great person we have ever known refused to be bound by the past. If you want to be great, he says, embrace being misunderstood just like them. Emerson argues that the individual should have faith that inconsistency is an appearance only, since every action always reflects an underlying harmony that is rooted in one’s own individuality. So long as the individual is true to themselves, their actions will be authentic and good.

Given his arguments in the first part of the essay, Emerson hopes by now that everyone realizes how ridiculous conformity is and the negative impact it is having on American culture. He describes American culture of the day as one of mediocrity that can only be overcome with the recognition that in each individual is a little bit of the universe, of God, and that wherever the individual lives authentically, God is to be found. Emerson believes people tap into that truth, into justice, and into wisdom by sitting still and letting the underlying reality that grounds us and all creation speak through us in the form of intuition. Everything else—time, space, even the past—appears as something apart from the underlying reality only because of our habits of thinking. Emerson counsels that people can escape that way of thinking by living in the present like plants do, and, like everything in nature , expressing one’s self against all comers.

Emerson laments that his society has lost all sense of what it means to be self-reliant individuals. He describes his historical moment as a weak one that has birthed no great people, and city boys seeking professions quit as soon as they are confronted with an initial failure. Emerson admires the country boy who tries thing after thing, not at all concerned about any failure or conforming to society; these are the kinds of people Emerson believes will make America’s history. If the individual wants to achieve true virtue, Emerson argues, they must go to war against anything that oppresses their sense of individuality, even if people accuse them of gross immorality as a result. Taking care to meet their idea of their duties to loved ones or even to themselves will vindicate them and maybe even bring people around to their way of seeing. Ultimately, Emerson believes that living in this state of war against society is actually true virtue.

Emerson closes his essay by applying the abstract concept of self-reliance to specifics. He believes that self-reliance can revolutionize every part of society if we let it: We should quit praying for something outside of ourselves to save us and instead act. We should quit subordinating our experiences to religions and philosophies and instead listen to our intuition. Emerson argues that Americans especially should stop traveling abroad to become cultured and instead create their own arts, literature, and culture using the materials we find right here at home. Emerson believes that progress is beside the point: we should quit pushing for it because it only saps our strength; society does not progress in a straight line. Emerson argues that people should stop locating their identities in property and instead understand that the most valuable part of a man is inside of him. Self-reliance can even be applied to politics: Emerson argues that we should quit governing ourselves by political parties and instead have each man govern himself by intuition. Emerson concludes by noting that self-reliance is the true path to peace.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

What does Emerson say about self-reliance?

In Emerson's essay “ Self-Reliance ,” he boldly states society (especially today’s politically correct environment) hurts a person’s growth.

Emerson wrote that self-sufficiency gives a person in society the freedom they need to discover their true self and attain their true independence.

Emerson believed that individualism, personal responsibility , and nonconformity were essential to a thriving society. But to get there, Emerson knew that each individual had to work on themselves to achieve this level of individualism. 

Today, we see society's breakdowns daily and wonder how we arrived at this state of society. One can see how the basic concepts of self-trust, self-awareness, and self-acceptance have significantly been ignored.

What are the transcendental elements in Emerson’s self-reliance?

The five predominant elements of Transcendentalism are nonconformity, self-reliance, free thought, confidence, and the importance of nature.

The Transcendentalism movement emerged in New England between 1820 and 1836. It is essential to differentiate this movement from Transcendental Meditation, a distinct practice.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Transcendentalism is characterized as "an American literary, political, and philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century, centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson." A central tenet of this movement is the belief that individual purity can be 'corrupted' by society.

Who published self-reliance?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the essay, published in 1841 as part of his first volume of collected essays.

It would go on to be known as Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self Reliance and one of the most well-known pieces of American literature.

What are the examples of self-reliance?

Examples of self-reliance can be as simple as tying your own shoes and as complicated as following your inner voice and not conforming to paths set by society or religion.

Self-reliance can also be seen as getting things done for yourself without relying on others, being able to “pull your weight” by paying your bills and taking care of yourself properly.

What is the purpose of self reliance by Emerson?

In his essay, " Self Reliance, " Emerson's sole purpose is the want for people to avoid conformity. Emerson believed that in order for a man to truly be a man, he was to follow his own conscience and "do his own thing."

Essentially, do what you believe is right instead of blindly following society.

Why is it important to be self reliant?

While getting help from others, including friends and family, can be an important part of your life and can be fulfilling. However, help may not always be available, or the help you receive is not what you had hoped for.

It is for this reason that Emerson pushed for self-reliance. If a person was independent, could solve their problems, and fulfill those needs and desires for themselves, they would be a more vital member of society.

What did Emerson mean, "Envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide"?

According to Emerson, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to you on its own, but that every person is given their own plot of ground for them to till. 

In other words, Emerson believed through one's work on themselves, increasing their maturity, intellect, overcoming insecurities, will allow a person to be self-reliant to the point where they no longer envy others, but measure themselves against how they were the day before.

That when we do become self-reliant, we focus on creating, rather than imitating. As being someone we are not is just as damaging to the soul as suicide.

Are Emerson's writings referenced in pop culture?

Emerson has made it into popular culture. One such example is in the film Next Stop Wonderland released in 1998. The reference is a quote from Emerson's essay on Self Reliance, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

This becomes a running theme in the film as a single woman (Hope Davis ), who is quite familiar with Emerson's writings and showcases several men taking her on dates, attempting to impress her by quoting the famous line, only to botch the line and also giving attribution to the wrong person. One gentleman says confidently it was W.C. Fields, while another matches the quote with Cicero. One goes as far as stating it was Karl Marx!

Why does Emerson say about self confidence?

Content is coming very soon.

Self-Reliance: The Complete Essay

Ne te quaesiveris extra."
Man is his own star; and the soul that can Render an honest and a perfect man, Commands all light, all influence, all fate ; Nothing to him falls early or too late. Our acts our angels are, or good or ill, Our fatal shadows that walk by us still." Epilogue to Beaumont and Fletcher's Honest Man's Fortune Cast the bantling on the rocks, Suckle him with the she-wolf's teat; Wintered with the hawk and fox, Power and speed be hands and feet.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Self Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson left the ministry to pursue a career in writing and public speaking. Emerson became one of America's best known and best-loved 19th-century figures. More About Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson Self Reliance Summary

The essay “Self-Reliance,” written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is, by far, his most famous piece of work. Emerson, a Transcendentalist, believed focusing on the purity and goodness of individualism and community with nature was vital for a strong society. Transcendentalists despise the corruption and conformity of human society and institutions. Published in 1841, the Self Reliance essay is a deep-dive into self-sufficiency as a virtue.

In the essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson advocates for individuals to trust in their own instincts and ideas rather than blindly following the opinions of society and its institutions. He argues that society encourages conformity, stifles individuality, and encourages readers to live authentically and self-sufficient lives.

Emerson also stresses the importance of being self-reliant, relying on one's own abilities and judgment rather than external validation or approval from others. He argues that people must be honest with themselves and seek to understand their own thoughts and feelings rather than blindly following the expectations of others. Through this essay, Emerson emphasizes the value of independence, self-discovery, and personal growth.

What is the Meaning of Self-Reliance?

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to think that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.

Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, 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 that flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought because it is his. In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

Great works of art have no more affecting lessons for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility than most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, 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. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. 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 that does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Trust Thyself: Every Heart Vibrates To That Iron String.

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, and the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

What pretty oracles nature yields to us in this text, in the face and behaviour of children, babes, and even brutes! That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it, so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it. So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not to be put by, if it will stand by itself. Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me. Hark! in the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.

The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.

Society everywhere is in conspiracy - Ralph Waldo Emerson

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — "But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, 'Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.' Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. The lintels of the door-post I would write on, Whim . It is somewhat better than whim at last I hope, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and his virtues. Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world, — as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. Wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding. The primary evidence I ask that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man to his actions. For myself it makes no difference that I know, whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.

This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. The easy thing in the world is to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, — under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blindman's-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? With all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, do I not know that he will do no such thing? Do not I know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, — the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression. There is a mortifying experience in particular, which does not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean "the foolish face of praise," the forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping wilfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable sensation.

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlour. If this aversation had its origin in contempt and resistance like his own, he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is the discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of the senate and the college. 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.

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity: yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. 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.

Do not follow where the path may lead - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I suppose no man can violate his nature.

All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; — read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.

There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. 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. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now. Greatness appeals to the future. If I can be firm enough to-day to do right, and scorn eyes, I must have done so much right before as to defend me now. Be it how it will, do right now. Always scorn appearances, and you always may. The force of character is cumulative. All the foregone days of virtue work their health into this. What makes the majesty of the heroes of the senate and the field, which so fills the imagination? The consciousness of a train of great days and victories behind. They shed an united light on the advancing actor. He is attended as by a visible escort of angels. That is it which throws thunder into Chatham's voice, and dignity into Washington's port, and America into Adams's eye. Honor is venerable to us because it is no ephemeris. It is always ancient virtue. We worship it today because it is not of today. We love it and pay it homage, because it is not a trap for our love and homage, but is self-dependent, self-derived, and therefore of an old immaculate pedigree, even if shown in a young person.

I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency. Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward. Instead of the gong for dinner, let us hear a whistle from the Spartan fife. Let us never bow and apologize more. A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; He should wish to please me, that I wish. I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind, I would make it true. Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the centre of things. Where he is, there is nature. He measures you, and all men, and all events. Ordinarily, every body in society reminds us of somewhat else, or of some other person. Character, reality, reminds you of nothing else; it takes place of the whole creation. The man must be so much, that he must make all circumstances indifferent. Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design; — and posterity seem to follow his steps as a train of clients. A man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as, Monachism, of the Hermit Antony; the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson. Scipio, Milton called "the height of Rome"; and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.

Let a man then know his worth, and keep things under his feet. Let him not peep or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of a charity-boy, a bastard, or an interloper, in the world which exists for him. But the man in the street, finding no worth in himself which corresponds to the force which built a tower or sculptured a marble god, feels poor when he looks on these. To him a palace, a statue, or a costly book have an alien and forbidding air, much like a gay equipage, and seem to say like that, 'Who are you, Sir?' Yet they all are his, suitors for his notice, petitioners to his faculties that they will come out and take possession. The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command me, but I am to settle its claims to praise. That popular fable of the sot who was picked up dead drunk in the street, carried to the duke's house, washed and dressed and laid in the duke's bed, and, on his waking, treated with all obsequious ceremony like the duke, and assured that he had been insane, owes its popularity to the fact, that it symbolizes so well the state of man, who is in the world a sort of sot, but now and then wakes up, exercises his reason, and finds himself a true prince.

Our reading is mendicant and sycophantic. In history, our imagination plays us false. Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day's work; but the things of life are the same to both; the sum total of both is the same. Why all this deference to Alfred, and Scanderbeg, and Gustavus? Suppose they were virtuous; did they wear out virtue? As great a stake depends on your private act to-day, as followed their public and renowned steps. When private men shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen.

The world has been instructed by its kings, who have so magnetized the eyes of nations. It has been taught by this colossal symbol the mutual reverence that is due from man to man. The joyful loyalty with which men have everywhere suffered the king, the noble, or the great proprietor to walk among them by a law of his own, make his own scale of men and things, and reverse theirs, pay for benefits not with money but with honor, and represent the law in his person, was the hieroglyphic by which they obscurely signified their consciousness of their own right and comeliness, the right of every man.

The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust.

Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. For, the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. We first share the life by which things exist, and afterwards see them as appearances in nature, and forget that we have shared their cause. Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom, and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or its absence is all we can affirm. Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed. My wilful actions and acquisitions are but roving; — the idlest reverie, the faintest native emotion, command my curiosity and respect. Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions, or rather much more readily; for, they do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time, all mankind, — although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.

The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure, that it is profane to seek to interpose helps. It must be that when God speaketh he should communicate, not one thing, but all things; should fill the world with his voice; should scatter forth light, nature, time, souls, from the centre of the present thought; and new date and new create the whole. Whenever a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away, — means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour. All things are made sacred by relation to it, — one as much as another. All things are dissolved to their centre by their cause, and, in the universal miracle, petty and particular miracles disappear. If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul. Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light; where it is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and an injury, if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; 'I think,' 'I am,' that he dares not say, but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

This should be plain enough. Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what David, or Jeremiah, or Paul. We shall not always set so great a price on a few texts, on a few lives. We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of grandames and tutors, and, as they grow older, of the men of talents and character they chance to see, — painfully recollecting the exact words they spoke; afterwards, when they come into the point of view which those had who uttered these sayings, they understand them, and are willing to let the words go; for, at any time, they can use words as good when occasion comes. If we live truly, we shall see truly. It is as easy for the strong man to be strong, as it is for the weak to be weak. When we have new perception, we shall gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish. When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn.

And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition. That thought, by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this. When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; not see the face of man; and you shall not hear any name;—— the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience. You take the way from man, not to man. All persons that ever existed are its forgotten ministers. Fear and hope are alike beneath it. There is somewhat low even in hope. In the hour of vision, there is nothing that can be called gratitude, nor properly joy. The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well. Vast spaces of nature, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea, — long intervals of time, years, centuries, — are of no account. This which I think and feel underlay every former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present, and what is called life, and what is called death.

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life only avails, not the having lived.

Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates is that the soul becomes ; for that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power, not confidence but an agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is. Who has more obedience than I masters me, though he should not raise his finger. Round him I must revolve by the gravitation of spirits. We fancy it rhetoric, when we speak of eminent virtue. We do not yet see that virtue is Height, and that a man or a company of men, plastic and permeable to principles, by the law of nature must overpower and ride all cities, nations, kings, rich men, poets, who are not.

This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE. Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause, and it constitutes the measure of good by the degree in which it enters into all lower forms. All things real are so by so much virtue as they contain. Commerce, husbandry, hunting, whaling, war, eloquence , personal weight, are somewhat, and engage my respect as examples of its presence and impure action. I see the same law working in nature for conservation and growth. Power is in nature the essential measure of right. Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul.

Thus all concentrates: let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause. Let us stun and astonish the intruding rabble of men and books and institutions, by a simple declaration of the divine fact. Bid the invaders take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within. Let our simplicity judge them, and our docility to our own law demonstrate the poverty of nature and fortune beside our native riches.

But now we are a mob. Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean, but it goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men. We must go alone. I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching. How far off, how cool, how chaste the persons look, begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary! So let us always sit. Why should we assume the faults of our friend, or wife, or father, or child, because they sit around our hearth, or are said to have the same blood? All men have my blood, and I have all men's. Not for that will I adopt their petulance or folly, even to the extent of being ashamed of it. But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation. At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door, and say, — 'Come out unto us.' But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me, I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act. "What we love that we have, but by desire we bereave ourselves of the love."

If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and faith, let us at least resist our temptations; let us enter into the state of war, and wake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy, in our Saxon breasts. This is to be done in our smooth times by speaking the truth. Check this lying hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth's. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. To nourish my parents, to support my family I shall endeavour, to be the chaste husband of one wife, — but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs that I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions if you are not. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men's, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh today? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last. — But so you may give these friends pain. Yes, but I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility. Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they justify me, and do the same thing.

The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes. But the law of consciousness abides. There are two confessionals, in one or the other of which we must be shriven. You may fulfil your round of duties by clearing yourself in the direct , or in the reflex way. Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin, neighbour, town, cat, and dog; whether any of these can upbraid you. But I may also neglect this reflex standard, and absolve me to myself. I have my own stern claims and perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices that are called duties. But if I can discharge its debts, it enables me to dispense with the popular code. If anyone imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!

If any man consider the present aspects of what is called by distinction society , he will see the need of these ethics. The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate , where strength is born.

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart.

Men say he is ruined if the young merchant fails . If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it , farms it , peddles , keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not 'studying a profession,' for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances. Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him, — and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history.

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; education; and in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.

1. In what prayers do men allow themselves! That which they call a holy office is not so much as brave and manly. Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous. It is prayer that craves a particular commodity, — anything less than all good, — is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends. Caratach, in Fletcher's Bonduca, when admonished to inquire the mind of the god Audate, replies, —

"His hidden meaning lies in our endeavours; Our valors are our best gods."

Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will. Regret calamities, if you can thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend your own work, and already the evil begins to be repaired. Our sympathy is just as base. We come to them who weep foolishly, and sit down and cry for company, instead of imparting to them truth and health in rough electric shocks, putting them once more in communication with their own reason. The secret of fortune is joy in our hands. Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide: him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it. We solicitously and apologetically caress and celebrate him, because he held on his way and scorned our disapprobation. The gods love him because men hated him. "To the persevering mortal," said Zoroaster, "the blessed Immortals are swift."

As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect . They say with those foolish Israelites, 'Let not God speak to us, lest we die. Speak thou, speak any man with us, and we will obey.' Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother's, or his brother's brother's God. Every new mind is a new classification. If it prove a mind of uncommon activity and power, a Locke, a Lavoisier, a Hutton, a Bentham, a Fourier, it imposes its classification on other men, and lo! a new system. In proportion to the depth of the thought, and so to the number of the objects it touches and brings within reach of the pupil, is his complacency. But chiefly is this apparent in creeds and churches, which are also classifications of some powerful mind acting on the elemental thought of duty, and man's relation to the Highest. Such as Calvinism, Quakerism, Swedenborgism. The pupil takes the same delight in subordinating everything to the new terminology, as a girl who has just learned botany in seeing a new earth and new seasons thereby. It will happen for a time, that the pupil will find his intellectual power has grown by the study of his master's mind. But in all unbalanced minds, the classification is idolized, passes for the end, and not for a speedily exhaustible means, so that the walls of the system blend to their eye in the remote horizon with the walls of the universe; the luminaries of heaven seem to them hung on the arch their master built. They cannot imagine how you aliens have any right to see, — how you can see; 'It must be somehow that you stole the light from us.' They do not yet perceive, that light, unsystematic, indomitable, will break into any cabin, even into theirs. Let them chirp awhile and call it their own. If they are honest and do well, presently their neat new pinfold will be too strait and low, will crack, will lean, will rot and vanish, and the immortal light, all young and joyful, million-orbed, million-colored, will beam over the universe as on the first morning.

2. It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth. In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. The Vatican, and the palaces I seek. But I am not intoxicated though I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

3. 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; Shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments, but 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.

Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation, but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique. The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that part he could not borrow. Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses, or Dante, but different from all these. Not possibly will the soul all rich, all eloquent, with thousand-cloven tongue, deign to repeat itself; but if you can hear what these patriarchs say, surely you can reply to them in the same pitch of voice; for the ear and the tongue are two organs of one nature. Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.

To be yourself in a world - Ralph Waldo Emerson

4. As our Religion, our Education, our Art look abroad, so does our spirit of society. All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other and undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous,  civilized, christianized, rich and it is scientific, but this change is not amelioration. For everything that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts. What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch, a pencil, and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat, and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men, and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength. If the traveller tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad axe, and in a day or two, the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow shall send the white to his grave.

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe, the equinox he knows as little, and the whole bright calendar of the year are without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue. For every Stoic was a Stoic, but in Christendom, where is the Christian?

There is no more deviation in the moral standard than in the standard of height or bulk. No greater men are now than ever were. A singular equality may be observed between the great men of the first and of the last ages; nor can all the science, art, religion, and philosophy of the nineteenth century avail to educate greater men than Plutarch's heroes, three or four and twenty centuries ago. Not in time is the race progressive. Phocion, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Diogenes, are great men, but they leave no class. He who is really of their class will not be called by their name, but will be his own man, and, in his turn, the founder of a sect. The arts and inventions of each period are only its costume, and do not invigorate men. The harm of the improved machinery may compensate its good. Hudson and Behring accomplished so much in their fishing boats, as to astonish Parry and Franklin, whose equipment exhausted the resources of science and art. Galileo, with an opera-glass, discovered a more splendid series of celestial phenomena than anyone since. Columbus found the New World in an undecked boat. It is curious to see the periodical disuse and perishing of means and machinery, which were introduced with loud laudation a few years or centuries before. The great genius returns to essential man. We reckoned the improvements of the art of war among the triumphs of science, and yet Napoleon conquered Europe by the bivouac, which consisted of falling back on naked valor and disencumbering it of all aids. The Emperor held it impossible to make a perfect army, says Las Casas, "without abolishing our arms, magazines, commissaries, and carriages, until, in imitation of the Roman custom, the soldier should receive his supply of corn, grind it in his hand-mill, and bake his bread himself."

Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation today, next year die, and their experience with them.

And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long, that they have come to esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is. But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature. Especially he hates what he has, if he see that it is accidental, — came to him by inheritance, or gift, or crime; then he feels that it is not having; it does not belong to him, has no root in him, and merely lies there, because no revolution or no robber takes it away. But that which a man is does always by necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property, which does not wait the beck of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes. "Thy lot or portion of life," said the Caliph Ali, "is seeking after thee; therefore, be at rest from seeking after it." Our dependence on these foreign goods leads us to our slavish respect for numbers. The political parties meet in numerous conventions; the greater the concourse, and with each new uproar of announcement, The delegation from Essex! The Democrats from New Hampshire! The Whigs of Maine! the young patriot feels himself stronger than before by a new thousand of eyes and arms. In like manner the reformers summon conventions, and vote and resolve in multitude. Not so, O friends! will the God deign to enter and inhabit you, but by a method precisely the reverse. It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner. Is not a man better than a town? Ask nothing of men, and in the endless mutation, thou only firm column must presently appear the upholder of all that surrounds thee. He who knows that power is inborn, that he is weak because he has looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and so perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, instantly rights himself, stands in the erect position, commands his limbs, works miracles; just as a man who stands on his feet is stronger than a man who stands on his head.

So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

Which quotation from "Self-reliance" best summarizes Emerson’s view on belief in oneself?

One of the most famous quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" that summarizes his view on belief in oneself is:

"Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string."

What does Emerson argue should be the basis of human actions in the second paragraph of “self-reliance”?

In the second paragraph of "Self-Reliance," Emerson argues that individual conscience, or a person's inner voice, should be the basis of human actions. He writes, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." He believes that society tends to impose conformity and discourage people from following their own inner truth and intuition. Emerson encourages individuals to trust themselves and to act according to their own beliefs, instead of being influenced by the opinions of others. He argues that this is the way to live a truly authentic and fulfilling life.

Which statement best describes Emerson’s opinion of communities, according to the first paragraph of society and solitude?

According to the first paragraph of Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Society and Solitude," Emerson has a mixed opinion of communities. He recognizes the importance of social interaction and the benefits of being part of a community but also recognizes the limitations that come with it.

He writes, "Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." He argues that society can be limiting and restrictive, and can cause individuals to conform to norms and values that may not align with their own beliefs and desires. He believes that it is important for individuals to strike a balance between the benefits of social interaction and the need for solitude and self-discovery.

Which best describes Emerson’s central message to his contemporaries in "self-reliance"?

Ralph Waldo Emerson's central message to his contemporaries in "Self-Reliance" is to encourage individuals to trust in their own beliefs and instincts, and to break free from societal norms and expectations. He argues that individuals should have the courage to think for themselves and to live according to their own individual truth, rather than being influenced by the opinions of others. Through this message, he aims to empower people to live authentic and fulfilling lives, rather than living in conformity and compromise.

Yet, it is critical that we first possess the ability to conceive our own thoughts. Prior to venturing into the world, we must be intimately acquainted with our own selves and our individual minds. This sentiment echoes the concise maxim inscribed at the ancient Greek site of the Delphic Oracle: 'Know Thyself.'

In essence, Emerson's central message in "Self-Reliance" is to promote self-reliance and individualism as the key to a meaningful and purposeful life.

Understanding Emerson

Understanding Emerson: "The American scholar" and his struggle for self-reliance.

Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09982-0

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Other works from ralph waldo emerson for book clubs, the over-soul.

There is a difference between one and another hour of life, in their authority and subsequent effect. Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual.

The American Scholar

An Oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, August 31, 1837

Essays First Series

Essays: First Series First published in 1841 as Essays. After Essays: Second Series was published in 1844, Emerson corrected this volume and republished it in 1847 as Essays: First Series.

Emerson's Essays

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emerson essay self reliance summary

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Literature Notes
  • About Self-Reliance
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography
  • Summary and Analysis of Nature
  • About Nature
  • Introduction
  • Summary and Analysis of The American Scholar
  • About The American Scholar
  • Paragraphs 1-7
  • Paragraphs 8-9
  • Paragraphs 10-20
  • Paragraphs 21-30
  • Paragraphs 31-45
  • Summary and Analysis of The Over-Soul
  • About The Over-Soul
  • Paragraphs 1-3
  • Paragraphs 4-10
  • Paragraphs 11-15
  • Paragraphs 16-21
  • Paragraphs 22-30
  • Summary and Analysis of Self-Reliance
  • Paragraphs 1-17
  • Paragraphs 18-32
  • Paragraphs 33-50
  • Summary and Analysis of The Transcendentalist
  • About The Transcendentalist
  • Paragraphs 1-5
  • Paragraphs 6-14
  • Paragraphs 15-30
  • Summary and Analysis of The Poet
  • About The Poet
  • Paragraphs 1-9
  • Paragraphs 10-18
  • Paragraphs 19-29
  • Paragraphs 30-33
  • Critical Essays
  • Understanding Transcendentalism
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Summary and Analysis of Self-Reliance About Self-Reliance

Published first in 1841 in Essays and then in the 1847 revised edition of Essays , "Self-Reliance" took shape over a long period of time. Throughout his life, Emerson kept detailed journals of his thoughts and actions, and he returned to them as a source for many of his essays. Such is the case with "Self-Reliance," which includes materials from journal entries dating as far back as 1832. In addition to his journals, Emerson drew on various lectures he delivered between 1836 and 1839.

The first edition of the essay bore three epigraphs: a Latin line, meaning "Do not seek outside yourself"; a six-line stanza from Beaumont and Fletcher's Honest Man's Fortune ; and a four-line stanza that Emerson himself wrote. Emerson dropped his stanza from the revised edition of the essay, but modern editors have since restored it. All three epigraphs stress the necessity of relying on oneself for knowledge and guidance.

The essay has three major divisions: the importance of self-reliance (paragraphs 1-17), self-reliance and the individual (paragraphs 18-32), and self-reliance and society (paragraphs 33-50). As a whole, it promotes self-reliance as an ideal, even a virtue, and contrasts it with various modes of dependence or conformity.

Because the essay does not have internally marked divisions delineating its three major sections, readers should number each paragraph in pencil as this discussion will make reference to them.

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emerson essay self reliance summary

Originally published in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays, First Series (1841), "Self-Reliance" was a uniquely American contribution to ethical thought. While urging us all to follow our inner voice, Emerson warns against the dangers of conformism and the desire for consistency before proposing major changes in American culture and society if self-reliance is to work. Greatly influential but often misunderstood, many of…

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Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

Originally published in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays, First Series (1841), "Self-Reliance" was a uniquely American contribution to ethical thought. While urging us all to follow our inner voice, Emerson warns against the dangers of conformism and the desire for consistency before proposing major changes in American culture and society if self-reliance is to work. Greatly influential but often misunderstood, many of its most memorable lines are taken out of the larger context of Emerson's thought.

What's the Main Point of 'Self-Reliance'?

The main point of 'Self-Reliance' can be stated in just two words: "Trust thyself." 2 Emerson's goal in this essay is to help readers overcome conformity and fear so that they have the confidence to listen to their inner voice.

'Self-Reliance' helped to develop one of the key Transcendentalist ideas: the importance of individual choice and the moral responsibility of the individual. Along with the importance of the natural world, this is one of the most important themes in Transcendentalist thought. 'Self-Reliance' is not simply a piece of advice or self-help, but a work of philosophy that ties in with Emerson's broader ideas about God, nature, humanity, and the self.

Transcendentalism was an early nineteenth-century intellectual movement that emphasized the importance of both the natural world and of individual expression and choice.

A summary of 'Self-Reliance'

Reflecting on the accomplishments of great artists, writers, philosophers, and prophets, Emerson notes that all of them "set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought." 2 We all, Emerson suggests, have comparable flashes of brilliant insight, but unlike geniuses, we ignore or suppress them. We all recognize this fact at some point in our lives:

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion. 2

To envy a great accomplishment is to fail to recognize that you, too, had the potential to do it, and to imitate someone else is to silence your own original self. It is no coincidence that we all arrive at this conviction. Emerson argues elsewhere that humanity, God, and nature are all part of the same essential unity (see the explanations on Nature (1836) and Ralph Waldo Emerson for more details).

God speaks through us, and these flashes of insight happen because our "eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify to that particular ray." 2 Why, then, do we ignore the divine voice within us? Emerson blames two forces that silence our inner voice: conformity and consistency.

Conformity is when we ignore our insights because they contradict commonly held beliefs and opinions. Emerson notes that tradition and common opinions often mask bad behavior such as racism and greed, so they cannot be criteria for goodness on their own.

Only we ourselves, not society or institutions, can judge what is good or bad: "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature," Emerson triumphantly states. 2 We must learn to ignore tradition and popular opinion when they contradict what we know in our hearts to be true.

Consistency creates the fear that what we say today may contradict something that we have said or done in the past. Emerson dismisses this out of hand, famously quipping that

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. 2

Consistency and the desire to be understood confine us to smallness and pettiness. Great actions require inconsistency, which, seen from the perspective of an entire human lifetime, will seem like no more than the tacking of a sailboat—the back and forth zigzag ultimately heading in the right direction.

Self-Reliance, A Sailboat on the sea, StudySmarter

A key distinction that Emerson makes is between intuition and tuition . Intuition is "the essence of genius, the essence of virtue, and the essence of life," and is synonymous with instinct. It comes from within us, and so it is "primary." Tuition is anything we are taught by others. 2

It is not only the fear of being judged as weird or inconsistent that holds us back, but also an undue reverence for the past, for books, and for authority figures. However, the inspiration for those great books of the past and the inspiration that we feel within us is the same, and the elevation of a ruler or a king is really just an acknowledgement of the capacity of any human being to make their own laws. Our own voices have just as much of a right to be heard as their voices.

There is, however, a place for books and for people of superior virtue. We can benefit from reading history if we see it as a kind of story or fable of what preceded our own "being and becoming." 2 We should also recognize that there is a kind of hierarchy of virtue or "souls," and that "Who has more soul than I, masters me...Round him I must revolve by the gravitation of spirits; who has less, I rule with equal facility." 2 Emerson thinks of this as a relationship of recognition and respect rather than of domination, obedience, or faith.

Emerson also admits that listening to our selves is not necessarily the only moral criterion that we need to think about. We may also need to consider our obligations to "father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat, and dog," but our ultimate duty is to choose our own obligations. 2 If we feel pressure to enter a certain profession or marry a certain person because society or our family demands this of us, we may be simply conforming and ignoring our intuition.

Note that Self-Reliance is not necessarily selfish or self-centered. Emerson thinks we still have obligations to our pets, friends, family, and country. It is up to us to figure out whether those obligations are real.

Emerson gives an example of what a self-reliant person might actually look like: "A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont" who dabbles in everything, from teaching to farming to politics to real estate, but has no fixed career or profession and who "always, like a cat, falls on his feet." 2

He contrasts such a person with graduates of elite colleges who feel like failures when they're not immediately successful, or entrepreneurs who consider themselves ruined after their first business venture fails. The sturdy lad clearly comes off favorably in this comparison, and is, according to Emerson, "worth a hundred of these city dolls." 2

Self-Reliance, A young man with a backpack in New Hampshire looking at an autumn landscape, StudySmarter

Emerson concludes the essay by noting four changes that must happen if self-reliance is to prevail. First, religion must change. Religion as it is taught and practiced insists that human beings and God are separate things. As a result of this, we not only undervalue ourselves, but we pray to God in a manner that either resembles begging or causes us to focus on our regrets, both of which are unhealthy.

Prayer, according to Emerson, ought to be "the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view." 2 Religion also encourages us to simply follow the creeds and beliefs of others, rather than to try to take something useful from them and think for ourselves.

Our tendency to imitate in art and culture is the next major change that will need to happen. We see this in painting, architecture, fashion, and literature which, especially in Emerson's day, was derivative of foreign models and generally focused on the great accomplishments of the past.

However, we all have something new and original to contribute, and if the great masters of the past had not recognized this fact and dared to be original, we would not have their works in the first place. Emerson summarizes his advice in a single, pithy sentence:

Insist on yourself; never imitate. 2

In the same vein, Emerson singles out the desire to travel as being particularly harmful to self-reliance. Traveling, Emerson thinks, is a vain attempt to escape from our problems or amuse ourselves. Our problem is with ourselves, not our location, and traveling is simply an attempt to "travel away from [our] selves" and deny this fact. 2 The person who visits Greece or Italy hoping to be inspired by their ancient historical sites "carries ruins to ruins." 2 Our real goal should be to help make the place where we already find ourselves worth traveling to.

Emerson then singles out our over-reliance on technology as being in need of change. Though Emerson's examples are based on the technology of his time, the points he makes are still applicable in our day—in some cases, even more so than to his. In Emerson, technological advancement entails the loss of some skill or ability: riding in cars, our ability to walk long distances decreases; telling time by clocks, we forget how to tell the time by the position of the sun; writing everything down, our memory atrophies, and so forth.

Great feats of warfare, exploration, and science have been accomplished both with and without the aid of advanced technology. Technological change, then, brings harm as well as good, and so represents no real advancement: "The arts and inventions of each period are only its costumes, and do not invigorate men. The harm of improved machinery may compensate its good." 2 We should focus on developing ourselves morally, spiritually, and culturally rather than on engineering the best machines.

For Emerson, Self-Reliance does not mean greed or selfishness. Too much focus on gadgets, things, or money can actually prevent us from understanding and following our intuition.

Finally, our relation to property must change. We have come to identify ourselves with the things that we own, and to judge other people "by what each has, and not by what each is." 2 We then come to consider governments, "religious, learned, and civil institutions" primarily as means of protecting our property. 2 Property often comes to us by chance, such as good luck, inheritance, or even crime, and we can lose it all just as accidentally (in, e.g. a natural disaster, war, or economic crisis).

The things we own cannot, then, really be what we are, and this confusion about our selves is an obstacle to self-reliance. Emerson calls on us to focus on our "permanent and living property" which "perpetually renews itself" wherever we are and no matter what happens (short of our death). "Nothing" he advises in the essay's concluding sentences, "can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles." 2

Self-Reliance, Close up of an eye. Instead of the Iris there are dollars and a dollar sign, StudySmarter

Themes in 'Self-Reliance'

Individualism : It is a person's inner voice, intuition, or flash of insight, that is responsible for all great acts of courage, virtue, and genius. Trusting this inner voice is what Emerson means by Self-Reliance. Intuition is God speaking through us, and since God is equally a part of us all, we are all equally capable of great things. All we need to do is trust our intuition.

  • Non-Conformity: Self-Reliance requires us to be non-conformists . The opinions of family, friends, colleagues, and teachers, will often contradict our intuition, and we need to stand firm in our convictions, regardless of what others think.
  • Consistency and Understandability: Our intuition does not necessarily follow a logical path, and may require us to contradict things we have said or done in the past. This, according to Emerson, is something we simply need to accept if we are to be Self-Reliant. While a person may not always appear to act consistently or understandably, their decisions will eventually make sense in the context of their entire lives.
  • Greatness : Self-Reliance is a precondition for all acts of greatness, whether they are political, military, literary, artistic, or on the scale of an ordinary human life.
  • Self-Cultivation : In order to make sure that we're really capable of listening to our intuition, we need to develop ourselves spiritually and intellectually. This involves reducing our dependence on the things that we own, and recognizing when things that we have learned have too great an influence on us.

The Importance of 'Self-Reliance'

Written at a point in American history when the nation was still trying to find its own identity, 'Self-Reliance' called on the members of that fledgling nation to stop imitating the intellectual, religious, and artistic models they found in British or European culture and to dare to be original. The ideas expressed in 'Self-Reliance' have a clear resonance with the ideals of independence, individualism, and exceptionalism that would become defining characteristics of American culture, partly thanks to Emerson's writing.

While the impact of the idea of 'Self-Reliance' persists to our own day, its metaphysical and theological underpinnings have been largely forgotten. For many, Self-Reliance has simply become a synonym for greed and selfishness. Author Benjamin Anastas, for example, after characterizing 'Self-Reliance' as "high-flown pap," goes on to blame it for corporate greed, multi-level marketing schemes, and political grandstanding. While Anastas acknowledges some of the finer ethical and metaphysical points of 'Self-Reliance', he ultimately thinks that "the larger problem with the essay, and its more lasting legacy as a cornerstone of the American identity, has been Emerson's tacit endorsement of a radically self-centered worldview." 1

Taken independently of Emerson's belief in metaphysical unity, of a divine voice that can speak through every person, of the need to cultivate the self spiritually and intellectually, to account for our duties to our families and pets, to ease our obsession with greed and materialism, and to reform our education and religion, the call to be self-reliant may indeed sound egotistical and selfish. Unfortunately, Emerson's call to be independent, original, and if need be inconsistent has proven to be a louder one than his call to reform our selves and our society.

Self-Reliance - Key takeaways

  • 'Self-Reliance' is one of Ralph Waldo Emerson's most influential essays. It was first published in his Essays, First Series in 1841.
  • By 'Self-Reliance', Emerson means learning to trust ourselves and listen to our inner voice, which he defines as 'intuition'.
  • Conformity to social expectations is the biggest obstacle to self-reliance. We must be prepared to go against the grain of popular opinion in order to follow our intuition.
  • The desire to be consistent is another obstacle to self-reliance. We must be just as ready to contradict our past selves in order to follow our intuition.
  • For the members of a society to be truly self-reliant, reform is needed in education, religion, and culture. People need to be taught when to think for themselves, and not to rely too much on material possessions, technology, or property.

1. Anastas, Benjamin. "The Foul Reign of Emerson's Self-Reliance." The New York Times . (2011).

2. Baym, N. (General Editor). The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B 1820-1865. Norton, (2007).

Frequently Asked Questions about Self-Reliance

--> what is self reliance.

Self-Reliance is the ability to listen to your inner voice or intuition instead of conforming to society's opinion.

--> How does Emerson define self reliance?

Emerson defines Self-Reliance as an ability to listen to your inner voice or intuition without being afraid of what others may think about you. Emerson thinks this is the only way to do anything great.

--> What are the main points of Self-Reliance?

The main points of Self-Reliance are:

  • We should all listen to our inner voice or intuition.
  • God speaks to all of us through this inner voice, so we can only do anything great by paying attention to it.
  • Conformity and the feeling that we need to be consistent all the time often get in the way of Self-Reliance.
  • We need to reform our religion, culture, and education, as well as check our greed and materialism for Self-Reliance to work.

--> What does the first paragraph of 'Self-Reliance' mean?

In the first paragraph of Self-Reliance, Emerson describes "a gleam of light" that we all experience, but that only geniuses dare to believe in the truth of. We, too, are all capable of great things, if only we could believe in the truth of that gleam of light.

--> Why is Self-Reliance important according to Emerson?

According to Emerson, Self-Reliance is one of the most important human virtues. It is only through Self-Reliance that we can do anything great or original. This is true no matter what our profession or station in life.

Final Self-Reliance Quiz

Self-reliance quiz - teste dein wissen.

What is the best summary of Self-Reliance?

Show answer

Trust yourself.

Show question

According to Emerson, what separates an average person from a great one?

Belief in their inner voice.

What are the two greatest obstacles to Self-Reliance?

Conformity and Consistency

Finish the quotation: 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

What example of a Self-Reliant person does Emerson give?

A sturdy lad from Vermont

What does Emerson say about our duties to other people?

We need to consider them in relation to our intuition.

Why is Emerson skeptical of technology?

He thinks it is both good and bad because it causes us to lose some of our skills.

Why does Emerson think we need to change our relationship to our property?

Because we confuse what we own with who we are.

What is the ultimate source of our intuition?

What  does Emerson use as a metaphor to describe inconsistencies that make sense when viewed in the long run?

Choose two words that complete the quotation: 

"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is _________; that imitation is _______."

ignorance, suicide

What is a negative side of Self-Reliance?

It is commonly used to justify selfishness

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Self Reliance

22 pages • 44 minutes read

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “self-reliance”.

“Self-Reliance” is one of the most famous and representative works of the transcendentalist philosopher/author Ralph Waldo Emerson . Transcendentalism was a literary and philosophical movement of the early- and mid-19th century in the United States. Transcendentalist works stress the purity and goodness of individualism and community with nature, especially over the corruption and conformity of human society and institutions. This essay, published in 1841, is an exploration of self-reliance , or self-sufficiency, as a virtue. Emerson emphasizes the value of individual instincts, thought, and action, and determines these attributes to be universally positive. When a man embraces his own self-worth and lets his instincts and personal moral compass guide him through his life, he need not rely on constructed human institutions bound by conventions and laws.

Emerson states early in the essay, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” and the rest of the essay explicates that image. In every man, there is the potential for great genius and contribution, but that potential can only be met through individualism and embracing one’s own strengths and instincts. After making the case for each man’s capacity for genius and self-reliance, Emerson examines some contours of human society that complicate a man’s natural ability to think for himself and act according. He likens society to a mob and offers several recommendations for transitioning out of that paradigm. For one, he champions solitude over community, arguing that a man should “stay at home” and explore the “internal ocean” of possibilities within the mind instead of so readily work with and focus on others. A “great” man, he says, can channel the power and fruitfulness of solitude even when immersed in a crowd.

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Comfort in solitude and independence translates into worthy authority in this model, and authority over the self diminishes the need for external authorities within manmade institutions ranging from government to organized religion. Like other transcendentalists, Emerson imagines that each individual has a personal connection to God, free from the involvement of a middleman, such as a minister. Truth and enlightenment start from within and there, too, is where God will speak to men.

Emerson imagines self-reliance to be the path toward genuine peace and happiness as well as genius and productivity. The biggest hindrances to mastery of self-reliance are imitation and conformity. Emerson presents both of these practices as shameful epidemics that waste potential and violate the goodness of nature as God intended. He rejects imitation even within the confines of education, instead suggesting that intellectual achievement comes only through independent, original thought. The great minds of the past, Emerson insists, understood and embodied this notion—their genius came from themselves and not from their teachers or peers. They were often misunderstood and did not fear disapproval or judgment from peers. Conformity requires that a man abandons individually-driven pursuits in favor of prescriptions, forgoing the opportunity to discover and foster his unique individualism. Emerson implores men to denounce the comfort of fitting in and blindly agreeing with norms and conventions.

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The essay is, by the end, a call to action for men to restructure their relationships with themselves, their close relations, and society as a whole. With himself at the center, a man can meet his full potential and benefit both himself and the world. 

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Self Reliance and Other Essays

By ralph emerson, self reliance and other essays summary and analysis of self-reliance.

Self-Reliance  was first published in 1841 in his collection,  Essays: First Series . However, scholars argue the underlying philosophy of his essay emerged in a sermon given in September 1830 - a month after his first marriage to Ellen (who died the following year of tuberculosis) - and in lectures on the philosophy of history given at Boston's Masonic Temple from 1836 to 1837.

The essay, for which Emerson is perhaps the most well known, contains the most thorough statement of Emerson’s emphasis on the need for individuals to avoid conformity and false consistency, and instead follow their own instincts and ideas. The essay illustrates Emerson's finesse for synthesizing and translating classical philosophy (e.g., self-rule in Stoicism, the  Bildung  of Goethe, and the revolution of Kant) into accessible language, and for demonstrating its relevance to everyday life.

While Emerson does not formally do so, scholars conventionally organize  Self-Reliance  into three sections: the value of and barriers to self-reliance (paragraph 1-17), self-reliance and the individual (paragraph 18-32), and self-reliance and society (paragraph 33-50).

The Value of and Barriers to Self-Reliance (paragraph 1-17)

Emerson opens his essay with the assertion, "To believe in your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius." His statement captures the essence of what he means by "self-reliance," namely the reliance upon one's own thoughts and ideas. He argues individuals, like Moses, Plato, and Milton, are held in the highest regard because they spoke what they thought. They did not rely on the words of others, books, or tradition. Unfortunately, few people today do so; instead, "he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his."

If we do not listen to our own mind, someone else will say what we think and feel, and “we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.” Emerson thus famously counsels his reader to "Trust thyself." In other words, to accept one's destiny, "the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events." If such advice seems easier said than done, Emerson prompts his reader to recall the boldness of youth.

Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody; all conform to it; so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it. So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not be put by, if it will stand by itself.

The difficulty of trusting our own mind lies in the conspiracy of society against the individual, for society valorizes conformity. As a youth, we act with independence and irresponsibility, and issue verdicts based on our genuine thought. We are unencumbered by thoughts about consequences or interests. However, as we grow older, society teaches us to curb our thoughts and actions, seek the approval of others, and concern ourselves with names, reputations, and customs. What some would call "maturity," Emerson would call "conformity."

To be a self-reliant individual then, one must return to the neutrality of youth, and be a nonconformist. For a nonconformist, "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.” Emerson does not advocate nonconformity for the sake of rebellion per se, but rather so the world may know you for who are, and so you may focus your time and efforts on reinforcing your character in your own terms.

However, the valorization of conformity by society is not the only barrier to self-reliance. According to Emerson, another barrier is the fear for our own consistency: "a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loth to disappoint them.” Rather than act with a false consistency to a past memory, we must always live in the present. We must become, rather than simply be. Emerson famously argues, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." While acting without regard to consistency may lead to us being misunderstood, the self-reliant individual would be in good company. "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."

Self-Reliance and the Individual (paragraph 18-32)

In this section, Emerson expounds on how individuals can achieve self-reliance.

As mentioned earlier, to live self-reliantly with genuine thought and action, one must "trust thyself." In other words, one must trust in the nature and power of our inherent capacity for independence, what Emerson calls, "Spontaneity" or "Instinct" - the "essence of genius, of virtue, and of life." This Spontaneity or Instinct is grounded in our Intuition, our inner knowledge, rather than "tuitions," the secondhand knowledge we learn from others. In turn, Emerson believed our Intuition emerged from the relationship between our soul and the divine spirit (i.e., God). To trust thyself means to also trust in God.

To do so is more difficult than it sounds. It is far easier to follow the footprints of others, to live according to some known or accustomed way. A self-reliant life "shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience. You take the way from man, not to man."

As such, one must live as courageously as a rose.

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say, “I think,” “I am,” but instead quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence… But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

To live in the present with nature and God, one must not worry about the past or future, compare oneself to others, or rely on words and thoughts not one's own.

Self-Reliance and Society (paragraph 33-50)

In the concluding paragraphs of  Self-Reliance , Emerson argues self-reliance must be applied to all aspects of life, and illustrates how such an application would benefit society. “It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.”

In regard to religion, Emerson believes a lack of self-reliance has led prayers to become “a disease of the will” and creeds “a disease of the intellect.” People pray to an external source for some foreign addition to their life, whereby prayer acts as a means to a private end, such as for a desired commodity. In this way, prayer has become a form of begging. However, prayer should be a way to contemplate life and unite with God (i.e., to trust thyself and also in God). Self-reliant individuals do not pray for something, but rather embody prayer (i.e., contemplation and unification with God) in all their actions. “The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends.”

Emerson also believes true prayer involves an avoidance of regret and discontent, which indicate a personal “infirmity of will,” as well as of sympathy for the suffering of others, which only prolongs their own infirmity, and instead should be handled with truth and health to return them to their reason.

As for creeds, his critique focuses on how those who cling to creeds obey the beliefs of a powerful mind other than their own, rather than listen to how God speaks through their own minds. In this way, they disconnect with the universe, with God, because the creed becomes mistaken for the universe.

In regard to education, Emerson asserts the education system fosters a restless mind that causes people to travel away from themselves in hope of finding something greater than what they know or have. Educated Americans desire to travel to foreign places like Italy, England, and Egypt for amusement and culture. They build and decorate their houses with foreign taste, their minds to the Past and the Distant. Artists imitate the Doric or the Gothic model. Yet, Emerson reminds us, “They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination, did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth.” One should not yearn for or imitate that which is foreign to oneself, for “Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession… Every great man is unique.” (Emerson develops these ideas further in his essay,  The American Scholar , which calls for the creation of a uniquely American cultural identity distinct from European traditions.)

Finally, Emerson addresses the “spirit of society.” According to Emerson, “society never advances.” Civilization has not led to the improvement of society because with the acquisition of new arts and technologies comes the loss of old instincts. For example, “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet… He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun.” Society merely changes and shifts like a wave. While a “wave moves onward… the water which it is composed does not.” As such, people are no greater than they ever were, and should not smugly rest on the laurels of past artistic and scientific achievements. They must instead actively work to achieve self-reliance, which entails a return to oneself, and liberation from the shackles of the religious, learned, and civil institutions that create a debilitating reliance on property (i.e., things external from the self).

Emerson concludes, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

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Self Reliance and Other Essays Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for Self Reliance and Other Essays is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

What does Emerson mean by self-reliance?

Emerson opens his essay with the assertion, "To believe in your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius." His statement captures the essence of what he means by "self-reliance,"...


The essay, for which Emerson is perhaps the most well known, contains the most thorough statement of Emerson’s emphasis on the need for individuals to avoid conformity and false consistency, and instead follow their own instincts and ideas.

What's the meaning of this paragraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance?

This speaks to a few themes. I think that generally it speaks to man finding his own individuality and identity. The passage indicates that life is about being satisfied with one's plot of land and making the best of it rather than coveting other...

Study Guide for Self Reliance and Other Essays

Self Reliance and Other Essays study guide contains a biography of Ralph Emerson, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About Self Reliance and Other Essays
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Essays for Self Reliance and Other Essays

Self Reliance and Other Essays essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Self Reliance and Other Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

  • Ideal Individualism and the Benefits of Conformity
  • Trancendentalism and Its Influence Upon the Creation of an American Identity
  • What Hangs in the Balance
  • Emersonian Implosion: The Self-Reliant Man in Moby Dick and Keats' Poetry
  • Huckleberry Finn: Self-Reliance or Self-Contempt ?

Lesson Plan for Self Reliance and Other Essays

  • About the Author
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  • Common Core Standards
  • Introduction to Self Reliance and Other Essays
  • Relationship to Other Books
  • Bringing in Technology
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E-Text of Self Reliance and Other Essays

Self Reliance and Other Essays E-Text contains the full text of Self Reliance and Other Essays

  • First Series - History
  • First Series - Self Reliance
  • First Series - Compensation
  • First Series - Spiritual Laws
  • First Series - Love

Wikipedia Entries for Self Reliance and Other Essays

  • Introduction

emerson essay self reliance summary


Self Reliance Emerson Summary

Summary and analysis of self reliance by ralph waldo emerson.

self reliance summary

Self-reliance is an essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841. It considers themes of self-reliance, individualism, transcendentalism, critique of societal norms, rejection of external authority and tradition, non-conformity, criticism of materialism, intellectual growth and intuitive knowledge. Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in an era when America was starting to assert its cultural independence from European influence and was one of the first philosophers of the ‘American’ perspective. He was a transcendentalist and had defined transcendentalism as idealism, as the opposite of the rationality that characterized materialism. It was a belief in the will and desire of the individual.

Self Reliance | Summary and Principal Arguments

Emerson starts the text with a short excerpt from a poem that highlights man’s significance in his being who commands everything as he wishes to and is in control of all that is around him instead of being controlled by those things. He defines the ability to speak one’s soul unfettered as a true genius.  He exhorts everyone to trust themselves, every being was created by divine power, that nature resides within themselves and whatever they say should be their own words, not an imitation of anyone else. He argues that when people read the works of great men like Plato and Milton, they find their own abandoned thoughts, ones which they didn’t dare to say out loud.

He wants each person to return to the non-conformity of their childhood. Youth is reckless and often speaks without thinking of the consequences which leads them to give an honest, independent verdict. With advancing age, however, humans are tied down by the weight of their words and actions and their repercussions . This is what Emerson calls conformity , the cumbering of self with what society thinks, behaving according to what others think is appropriate. He hopes that man could return to the neutrality of youth.  However, society , as he describes it, is a joint stock company , where each one surrenders their individuality for the betterment of the collective. He argues that societal consciousness develops as a jail, which limits the thoughts and merits of the individual. He goes on as far as to argue that even if one considers their own or someone else’s instincts to be devilish instead of divine, they still must follow it.

Emerson goes on to write about how men should not do anything just for the appearance of it . Charities and good work done only to show off do not make one virtuous. One’s life should be lived for oneself  and not as a spectacle for others. Under every great work done for the show, the man himself gets lost. Goodness must be done for oneself, and every action taken for one’s integrity. One should learn ‘ spontaneity ’ which arises from intuition, the relationship between the soul and the divine spirit. Instead of following others, we should be firm in our genuine actions, even if it is scorned at present. It will be honored in the future, and the greatness will live on.

According to Emerson the first obstacle to individuality is adherence to dead forces.  He is critical of people who believe in or live their life on the basis of norms of ‘communities of opinion’, where individuals adopt predefined mannerisms and appearances to accept and live by a certain idea of truth. He adds that non-adherence to such norms may lead to some resistance and ill-treatment, yet argues that such behaviors change like the wind and are inconsequential. In addition to societal norms, false inconsistency poses another barrier   to non-conformity. He asserts that one shouldn’t be tied down by past promises and proclamations. He argues that great things have been achieved by those who moved on from their past selves. He highlights that the only person we are accountable to is ourselves and that in the grander picture which may not be visible in the present, all inconsistencies will align. themselves into a greater meaning.

Emerson’s principal argument in the first section of the essay is a rallying cry for individualism . He argues that history can often be broken down to the biography of a few such persons who chose to speak their true thoughts believing them to be good and right. However, this also means that every man has the capability of doing the same and creating a newer design that posterity may follow. To people, older designs and grand structures like a tower or palace might have a forbidding air but it has to be remembered that it is our perception of the world that matters more and nothing will be overwhelming anymore.

Emerson is also critical of kings and interloping messiahs , who obstruct a direct relationship with God or nature. He also chastises men who instead of speaking their own minds choose to repeat the thoughts of others before them. He defines one’s intuition as divine wisdom and inquiry as the ‘ essence of geniu s’. To him, the Supreme Being speaks to each individual fully and equally , and it must be followed so. He comments that man has become timid, and that instead of trying to learn from one’s past, they should look to nature- the leaf bud, the rose, the root, that stands upright and complete in the present. Strong souls must not pay heed to the ‘phraseology’ of the past and its geniuses. He calls the knowledge of the past a conspirator against the genius of the present . He highlights the fact that since God speaks to everyone freely and directly, if one follows their intuition, they are bound to follow what is good and true. He adds that power is the measure of right, and since no one has greater power over man than himself, man has the highest role in the construction of truth and goodness.

Emerson emphasizes that each person has to discover their own morality, one of transcendence . According to Emerson, society hates that moment of transcendence as the highest form of self-reliance, one which can only be gained through intuitive knowledge in opposition to tuition, that is, knowledge acquired through other sources  (such as a teacher). He also highlights that an individual who seeks and evolves his intuitive knowledge grows in virtue and gains the power to permeate his influence to all animate and inanimate objects. Others who choose to not adhere to their true selves behave like a mob and are motivated by irrelevant problems like feelings of responsibility and other’s demands. Emerson asks individuals to prioritize truth and integrity over familial or societal responsibilities and demands. If the individual is unable to achieve self-reliance in a heavily conformist society, they are at least expected to call falsehood out, be it a family member or friend or relation of any kind. Ignoring conventional moral duties might lead to them being shunned by society. Thus, the process would not be easy. The achievement of self-reliance, the kind which Emerson describes, seems like a lofty ideal to be gained by a select few but tried by many.

In the last part of his essay, Emerson talks about America and its people. To him, the urban youth of America  were lacking courage and backbone, to the point that a little setback in their lives caused them great disappointment as opposed to the country boy who tries out everything. The comparison between the city youths and the country fellow is to be expected given the quality of life Emerson traditionally assigns to each environment. Of no surprise is his favoring the bucolic life. He admires people like those who realize that it is in their hands to build the nation, not with conventional authority. The moment he tosses those customs out, he makes history and is revered.

He locates four primary problems in that day and age – praying for meaningless goals, unnecessary traveling, thoughtless imitation and a convoluted notion of improvement or growth.  According to Emerson, praying for personal benefits is meaningless. Self-reliance means attaining oneness with God and then man would not have to beg for anything. Praying as a form of confessing regrets is also decried by him; faith in the individual self will surpass all the boundaries created by religions and philosophies. He also despises traveling because in his opinion, instead of looking outwards, to other cultures, America should look towards itself to rediscover its roots. Worse than traveling to him is imitation, which he calls traveling of the mind. He finds imitation pointless, since all great men according to him had no predecessors or teachers they learned or copied from. They simply followed their own whims and he exhorts others to do the same. He reinforces the idea that if one follows their heart, they will find and build greatness.

Lastly, Emerson offers a critique of the idea of progress.  According to him, changes are continual and contradictory; even if newer developments are made, some older knowledge is lost. Society is in a constant state of growth and loss and he cites several examples to elaborate on the same, for instance, man may have built a coach to travel, but he has lost the aboriginal strength of his feet. H is main argument is the point that everyone at all times exists in a state of equality, and no notion of inferiority that discourages people from growing and experimenting should exist.

Towards the end, Emerson also presents a brief critique of property and materialism.  He considers reliance on material means such as property the same as one’s reliance on another’s intellect. According to him, men of knowledge should not take pride in property, especially that which is acquired by unfair means. He also presents a subtle critique of governance . He argues that institutions protecting private property, primarily governments, should also be done away with. In other words, he wants governing bodies and political parties to be done away with and individuals to rely on their own decisions. In a world with a multitude of people who are all different in their own way, there is every reason for an organized institution that collects the people’s voices and works to fulfill their needs, however imperfect it may be. In the essay’s conclusion, he asks men to prioritize their principles, that is, self-reliance and take risks to evolve his self, which will bring peace.

 Self-Reliance | Socio-Historical Context  

Emerson’s intense support for individualism may be located in several intellectual trends of the time he was writing in. Most importantly, Emerson was a pioneering transcendentalist . It was a movement that originated in the early decades of the 19th century in New England It first originated among liberal Congregationalists in New England, known as unitarians , who were critical of Calvinist and Puritan trends Later, however, due to increasing skepticism towards religions there was a critique of Biblical beliefs and notions of creation.  Henceforth, the individual’s “revelation”—or “intuition,” as Emerson was later to speak of it—was to be the counter both to Unitarian philosophy.

A crucial point was Emerson’s speech at Harvard Divinity School  where he put forward the idea that while Jesus was a true prophet, he stood for the greatness of man and not his own greatness. While primarily a religious movement that was further developed and contributed to by other scholars, it was an important juncture in highlighting the individuality and significance of man.

Besides this defining intellectual current, the other important point of context is the developments in America at that time.  Emerson’s ideas on self-reliance were influenced by the ideals of individualism and democracy that were central to American society. As the United States was evolving as a democratic nation, there was a growing emphasis on individual freedom, self-determination, and the pursuit of happiness. Emerson highlights the importance of continuous personal growth and self-improvement. He suggests that individuals should strive to expand their understanding of themselves and the world around them and to constantly refine their beliefs and values. He suggests that personal growth and progress often come from questioning and challenging established notions.

These ideals besides their intellectual value must be understood in the politics of the time, where there was an additional bent against European influence, from which official freedom had only been secured recently and the insistence on establishing a unique American identit y. Emerson’s essay resonated with the American spirit of individualism and the desire for personal autonomy in thought and actions. This context becomes obvious upon reading the second half of the essay where Emerson seems to be focusing exclusively on America  Additionally, the United States underwent enormous social and political reforms towards the middle of the 19th century. Women’s rights, abolitionism, and school reform were all growing in popularity. In a similar framework, Emerson’s article can be seen as a call for people to stand up for their principles and convictions in defiance of conventional standards, promoting individual independence and autonomy.  It also appears that throughout the essay, Emerson wants to convince himself as much as his readers, through constant repetition, of his concept of individualism. Perhaps, living in 1838 America, he was not quite sure of himself either. His speech about religion at the Harvard Divinity School had gotten negative attention and this essay was an exhortation to himself as well .

Through the last section of the text, Emerson constantly reiterates the idea that since knowledge is intuitive, it can be found within (herein he characterizes the within as the country of America and not the individual self), and does not need external help or influence. He extends his analysis of one’s self-dependence to a country’s independence and sufficiency . As mentioned earlier, this was the time when America was developing a unique and distinct cultural and political identity for itself, and Emerson as one of its earliest proponents pushed for an inward-looking approach to growth and development.

Self Reliance | Rhetorical Devices

Emerson’s text is laid with multiple rhetorical devices. He frequently uses allusions , to refer to past or distant events and personalities to exemplify his point. Usually, he’s referring to examples of great men who achieved great success simply by following their minds and not conforming to society. In the beginning itself, he refers to the likes of Plato, Milton and Moses who didn’t speak about traditions or books but rather about their own thoughts and perceptions. While making a point about how great minds are often misunderstood, even persecuted, but that isn’t reason enough to not pursue one’s intuition, he refers to Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton  among others. Referring to the possibilities of growth if individuals prioritize their intuition he quotes,

‘ A man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as, Monachism, of the Hermit Antony: the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox: Methodism of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson. Scipio, Milton called “the height of Rome”; and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons ‘.

He also refers to kings who haven’t performed any acts deserving of their titular greatness and also of David, Jeremiah and Paul while reestablishing his point about how no matter the greatness of others one must follow their own path as the preceding greats did.

Emerson also regularly employs metaphors . He compares one’s character to an acrostic stanza,  the difference between voluntary and involuntary acts to day and night (both are undisputed facts), the mindless following of norms to the role learning practiced by children and a village boy who experiments with life to a cat who always stands on its feet among others. In his critique of thoughtless travelers, he adds that great minds ‘ visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet ‘, in order to point out the fact one must consider themselves and their personal thoughts to be superior to outside influences or developments.

Another important literary device is personification . For example, at one point he personifies the eye as an entity which can see and make judgments accordingly.

‘The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.’

An important element in the essay is his critique of society ; he claims that society is always pressuring individuals to give up their originality (or ‘manhood’) and conform to norms, especially through judgements and ostracization. He gives society a human trait of intellectual activity wherein it plans and implements means to force individuals to confirm.

For instance –

‘Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members’ and ‘’It (society) loves not realities and creators, but names and customs’.

Seeking to drive his point quite forcefully, he also employs hyperbole . Extremely critical of imitation, he calls it ‘suicide’. He also describes the judgment meted out by society against non-conforming individuals as the work of a ‘thousand-eyed present’.

He also uses imagery , most importantly related to nature. He frequently conflates the ideas and thoughts of the self with the intuitive knowledge of nature. He also asks individuals to look at nature and understand individuality and confidence: z

‘These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less.’

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