Self-Reliance: Part I

Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in a crankier voice in his essay “Self-reliance” than he did in “Compensation.” He had much to be cranky about.

He takes nineteenth century man to task, lecturing him on his reliance on the past, experts, use of charity to gain esteem in the eyes of other men, conformity, foolish consistency, prayer for personal gain, discontent, creeds, travel, progress, and fortune. Yes, dear twenty-first century reader, there is something here to make every one of us squirm.

But fortunately interspersed among the rants are ways to topple our false gods. The power is close by. All we have to do is trust ourselves.


The theme of the origin of genius begins the essay and recurs again in later pages. Man has the root of genius if he trusts his thought and believes it is shared by others. Emerson would like men and women to express their thought and not passively share the opinion of others. We may find our thoughts are not only original but also universal. This and eschewing envy and imitation is the genius within.

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men–that is genius.

Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else to-morrow 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 or 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.

A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best;

Trust thyself.

The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.

Who so would be a man, must be a nonconformist… Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.


Here Emerson writes as though he has been asked for a donation one too many times. For those with whom he shares a “spiritual affinity” he would give all, but he begrudges “alms to sots…and [to] the thousand-fold Relief Societies.” I know if Emerson were here he could explain to me why he separates men and women into these two groups. This bothered me forty years ago for written in the margin of my college text I am reading again is the note “If all are governed by the over soul, are not all men “mine”?

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. This 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 meetinghouses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots, and the thousand-fold 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.

It is the harder because you will always find those who think
they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is
easy in the world 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.

Indeed it does take a great man or woman “to keep with perfect sweetness the “independence of solitude” in a world of getting and spending, to live one’s life according to one’s own chart which may run counter to society’s dictates.

But do your work, and I shall know you.


A theme constant in Emerson’s writing is his urgings to avoid conformity. He would have all men think for themselves, trust the genius within, rely on the self.

A man must consider what a blind-man’s-buff is the game
of conformity.

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.

But being an original carries a price. Political parties, unions, churches, indeed all of society’s institutions want their members to conform to their rules and philosophies. Schools especially want to fit students into the mold of obedient citizen. Independent thinkers are suspect and end up attending Reed.


The expression of a thought as it applies in the present without evaluating its consistency with past thought is the mark of the self-reliant man.

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency.

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.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored
by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

Speak what you think now.

To be great is to be misunderstood.

The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.


For Emerson spontaneity or instinct is the source of genius and virtue, life emanating from the aboriginal Self. Intuition is the primary wisdom. To access this primary wisdom man must trust his own instincts.

When private men shall act with original views, the luster will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen.

What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?… 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 (instructions).

For the sense of being which in calm hours arises, we know not how, in the souls, 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 appearance in nature and forget that we have shared their cause.

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.

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;

Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,–means, teachers, texts, temples fall;

Place trust in the divine which is in all of us and there will be no need for the teachings of others.

If man trusts the divine within himself, he has no need for the teachings of the sages of the past. Man can be spontaneous, following his instincts.

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 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; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ 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 to-day.

[Man] cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of grandames and tutors…


One’s intuition comes from the self and if recognized, keeps us living in the present, the greatest source of the serenity we seek.

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 footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; 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…This which I think and feel underlie my present, and what is called life and what is called death.

Life only avails, not the having lived.

Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself.

Emerson probably wrote more aphorisms than anyone since Alexander Pope.

Diane McCormick