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.”
In his book titled Essays, “Self-Reliance” follows “History” so that a balanced and self-contained unit can be created out of these two. Abounding with short aphorisms, the essay begins with an admonition to believe in the true self, which is considered in essence identical with the Universal Spirit: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Emerson then holds infancy, which is favorably contrasted with adulthood, as a model for one to follow in the cultivation of a spirit of independence or nonconformity. His metaphorical use of a babe as a model of nonconformity is a radical twist of Christ’s elevation of it as an emblem of total dependence on God.
As does Wordsworth, Emerson regards a person’s growth normally as a process of losing one’s moral sentiment or spirit of nonconformity. Society is considered to have an adverse effect on the growth of each individual’s independent spirit, whereas solitude may contribute to it. Senseless philanthropy, which encourages dependence on outside help, is thus also thought to be detrimental. When Emerson states that one should live by one’s instinct, whether or not it be from the devil, he is attempting to use exaggeration to shock his audience; his idea is that the inherent moral sentiment, which makes one self-sufficient, cannot come from the devil. Total trust in one’s emotions may well result in contradiction when one’s emotions change, however; noting this, Emerson simply retorts that life itself is an organic process, inevitably involving contradiction. Acting in accordance with true feeling, he believes, will automatically bring about a sound life.
Viewed in light of self, history is thus the biography of a few unusually powerful figures. Having emphasized the importance of nonconformity, he begins to explore the philosophical basis for self-reliance. According to Emerson, there is an instinct or intuition in each individual drawing upon the Universal Spirit as the ever-dependable guiding principle. Because of the identification of intuition with the Universal Spirit, one is simply following its command when one acts in accordance with one’s intuition. The presence of the self-sufficing and self-contained Universal Spirit in each individual thus justifies one’s living in and for the present without having to refer either to the past or to the future.
Whereas Christ alone has traditionally been regarded as the Word made flesh, Emerson regards every human potentially as a reincarnation of the Word. Consequently, regret of the past and prayer for the future as a means to effect private ends are both diseases of human will and should be avoided. Traveling with the hope to see something greater than the self, in Emerson’s view, would simply be senseless. As a result of this moralistic view, society, like nature, may change but never advance. Typical of his conclusions, the end of this essay, which repeats the theme of self-reliance and predicts the subjugation of Chance under human will based on self-reliance, sounds greatly optimistic.