Self Reliance: Part II

By now the zen of Emerson is becoming clear. Live in the present. Become enlightened. Overcome desire. There is independence in solitude. By not linking our well being to others, we come closer to self actualization.

We must go alone.

All men have my blood and I 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.

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;

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 only rejoices me and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your own companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly but humbly and truly.

I would like the paragraph above added to the marriage ceremony. Wait, maybe I don’t need to be married!

The populace think that your rejections 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.

*ANTINOMIANISM -the contradiction between two statements, both apparently obtained by correct reasoning.

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…If any one 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.

The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we 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 parlor soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.

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 for himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries and customs out of the window, we pity him no more but thank and revere him.

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men.


There is prayer in the actions of men. God is in our work; therefore our actions speak to Him. Prayer that is offered to gain something for an individual–Please, God, let me win the lottery–is “vicious” because it separates us from others and sets up the dualism Emerson spoke of in “Compensation.”

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…But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not a 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.


If we are reasonable human beings, listening to our intuition, we should not know discontent for we would follow a path that is correct for us. We get into trouble and become discontent only when we try to imitate others.

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. Out sympathy is just as base.

The secret of fortune is joy in our hands. Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man.


A creed is an imposition of one man’s thought on others which would destroy self-reliance.

As men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect…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…Such is Calvinism, Quakerism, Swedenborgism.


The purpose of travel must be to acquire and share knowledge, not to alleviate the discontent one may feel at home. Emerson saw the root of imitation as “traveling of the mind.”

It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Traveling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans.

The wise man stays at home.

And when his necessities …call him from his house,…he is at home still and shall make men sensible…that he goes, the missionary of wisdom and virtue.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe for the purpose of art, of study, and benevolence.

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…and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from… My giant goes with me wherever I go.

Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the traveling of the mind? Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties lean, and follow the Past and the Distant. The soul created the arts wherever they have flourished.

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.

Every great man is unique…Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakspeare. Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.

Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.


Nothing in life is all good or all bad. For advancement we pay a price.

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.

What a contrast between the self-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.

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. 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…


Man has made progress in science and technology which Emerson could not consider. We have our telephones and computers, but what have these devices contributed to our sense of self? Are they only “our costumes”?

No greater men are now than ever were…Not in time is the race progressive.. Phocion, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Diogenes are great men, but they leave no class…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.

Columbus found the New World in an undecked boat.

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.

And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance….They measure their esteem of each
other by what each has, and not by what each is.

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 who knows what 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.


Of course Emerson would hold no stock in fortune for it does not come from man’s work, his reliance on himself.

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 shall sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations.


Emerson wouldn’t like my attaching goal seeking to his work, but I need to know what I can expect from practicing self-reliance. Emerson answers Peace.

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

Diane McCormick