Ralph Waldo Emerson: Self-Reliance
Emerson is the seminal intellectual, philosophical voice of the nineteenth century in America. Although readers today may find his thought slightly facile, even unrealistic– times do change–his influence among his contemporaries and those who followed immediately after him was enormous. Emerson was the spokesman for the American Transcendentalists, a group of New England romantic writers, which included Thoreau, who believed that intuition was the means to truth and that god is revealed through intuition to each individual. They celebrated the independent individual and strongly supported democracy. The essay ‘Self-Reliance,’ from which an excerpt is presented here, is the clearest, most memorable example of Emerson’s philosophy of individualism, an idea that is deeply embedded in American culture. His variety of individualism grows from the self’s intuitive connection with the Over-Soul and is not simply a matter of self-centered assertion or immature narcissism.
The five predominant elements of Transcendentalism are nonconformity, self-reliance, individualism, optimism, and intuition. These concepts are liberally sprinkled throughout Emerson’s essay ‘Nature.” When Emerson says that we should ‘demand our own works and laws and worship,’
In ‘Self-Reliance,’ Emerson defines nonconformity as a refusal to bow to the pressure of society’s opinions. A nonconformist will remain true to his or her own ideas and will trust the ‘integrity’ of his or her own mind.
He believes that a true man must be a nonconformist, because otherwise, he will simply agree with what those around him say, and he will never have the confidence that his own thoughts that spring from his own brain are actually true or correct. According to Emerson, nothing in the world is sacred except the integrity of a person’s own mind, and this must be placed above the idea of what is ‘good’ or sacred in the world
Emerson defines non-conformity in relation to this idea of self-trust. He says that a nonconformist will always occasion displeasure in the face of society. People are always resistant to those who have their own ideas and do not simply conform to generally accepted opinions. He encourages true genius to embrace their own nonconformity and to simply accept that this is how they will be treated by the world around them. To conform to widely understood and agreed-upon ideas is a simple way to navigate life, but it is not challenging, and it is not appropriate for those who wish to live in a true and self-reliant way. A self-reliant person is by definition a nonconformist, because he or she will accept only his or her own personal opinions to be true unless adequately convinced otherwise
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Self-reliance is all that it sounds like plus considerably more. Even though Ralph Waldo Emerson may not have introduced the concept, it was he who brought it to the general public with his 1841 essay Self-Reliance. In positive psychology, self-reliance has strong theoretical significance thanks to its implications for happiness. You’ll probably notice some overlap, or at least potential implications for self-worth, self-expression, self-knowledge, resilience, and for self-acceptance. Self-Reliance contains Emerson’s beliefs and perspectives on how society negatively impacts our growth. He argues strongly that self-reliance, self-trust, and individualism, amongst other things, are ways that we can avoid the conformity imposed upon us. Or, he also argues, that we quite frequently impose upon ourselves.
Many things can be construed from Emerson’s writings. Here are a few examples of some key concepts that shine through in his seminal essay, Self-Reliance.
The ability to think autonomously goes hand in hand with trusting your own instinct. Lots of Emerson’s work centered on how people tend to ‘hide behind’ what they’ve learned from society, or significant others within society. He believed this was mere imitation and was linked with a lack of confidence in one’s own intuition and rational capabilities.
Basically, if you (or I, or anyone) believe in something, and consider that it holds merit after thinking it through, there should be nothing holding us back from voicing it with confidence. Not to do so, Emerson believed, is to conform to societal expectations for no good reason.
Importance of Having Self-Reliance
Having self-reliance is important for several reasons. The most obvious is that depending on others for help means there will be times when it’s not available.
But let’s dig a little deeper to understand how and why you can use this concept to flourish, grow, find, and nurture happiness. Self-reliance is also important because it:
- This means you can solve problems and make decisions by yourself. This is critical as we grow older and learn to live independently;
- Allows you to feel happy by yourself, in yourself, and about yourself—without needing to rely on others;
- Involves developing self-acceptance, a very powerful thing to have;
- Involves acquiring self-knowledge and practicing self-compassion;
- Gives your perspective, which in turn…
- Gives you direction.
Individualism is defined as the ability and attribute of someone who longs and is different from everyone around them. Someone who is an individual is independent of everyone else and attempts to stay that way, as that is the lifestyle they promote and enjoy. Emerson shows individualism in his work ‘Self-Reliance,’ saying ‘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 (Emerson 183).’ This quote represents transcendentalism because it shows that every man must be a man for himself and no one else and that imitation and envy are worthless.
Optimism is defined as the philosophy that any situation or event has good and that nothing is all bad. It is good in everything, and there is always a second chance. In the ‘glass half filled’ scenario, optimists believe that the glass is half full. Emerson is an optimist in ‘Nature’ when he says, ‘Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration (Emerson 181).’ In all of these scenarios, Emerson finds the good in any aspect of nature, which is a very important element. There is nothing that disappoints Emerson in the woods.
Intuition is characterized as the knowledge about something that comes from the inside, instead of as a matter of fact. Instinct comes from the inner voice and from impulses, and visionaries accept that society and reality repress those inward good compasses and that break is a magnificent method to build up your own instinct. In ‘Nature’ Emerson says, ‘The admirer of nature is he whose internal and outward faculties are still really changed in accordance with one another; who has held the soul of outset even into the period of masculinity (Emerson 180).’ This is a portrayal since it discusses the faculties being acclimated to one another because of being near nature and getting nature. The soul of the outset is the substance of unadulterated instinct since it has not yet been ruined by society.