Self Reliance Summary

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self Reliance

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Self Reliance Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his essay “Self Reliance” in 1841. It was first published that same year in a collection titled Essays: First Series. The philosophical leanings that would become the essay were evident in a sermon Emerson delivered in September of 1830. During 1836 and 1837, he built on his themes in a series of lectures at Boston’s Grand Lodge or Masonic Temple. Emerson was a founder of the transcendentalist movement in the U.S., writing of “individualism, personal responsibility, and nonconformity.” The movement had strong roots in New England and had as central tenets ideas that stemmed from other philosophical mindsets including Unitarianism, Romanticism, and German Idealism. Many of the beliefs, such as individualism and reform, were dear to the core American values of the era, thus providing a built-in audience that agreed with Emerson’s viewpoints.

The essay opens with a call to believe in the true self. Emerson points to one’s infancy as the model to be followed in that it encourages the development of a spirit of independence and non-conformity. To Emerson an individual’s personal growth is reliant upon losing one’s tendency toward conformity. Society is seen as having a negative impact on the growth of individual spirit while conversely, solitude encourages such growth. Emerson encourages living by instinct even if it is from the devil. Here he is being factitious; his point is that inherent moral sentiment, which is what leads a person to self-sufficiency, cannot stem from the devil. Unqualified trust in emotions may lead to contradictions as emotions change, but Emerson accounts for this, calling life a process that is organic thus containing contradictions.

Emerson believes each person has an instinct that draws upon a universal spirit to provide a consistent guide to living. An individual guided by intuition or instinct is following the universal spirit. From a formal religion perspective, Emerson looks at every individual as a potential reincarnation of the “Word,” while up to that point, only Christ was regarded as such. This supports the concept of living in and for the present, free from the need to refer to the past or worry about the future, both toxic to the human condition and best avoided.

Plato, Milton, and Moses are cited as exemplars of individuals who are revered for being willing to speak their own minds. They did not lean on the work of those who came before them. Emerson argues that people rarely follow that course of action, and they devalue their own thoughts simply because they are their own. Man must learn to listen to his own mind lest “we be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.” When feeling that this is not possible, Emerson suggests directing oneself toward youth where conformity has not yet taken over. At the earlier stages of life, societal norms do not suppress desires to act independently and irresponsibly, allowing decisions based on personal thought.

As individuals age, society widely encourages the individual to seek the approval of others, to act in accordance with traditions, and to be concerned with reputation. Rather than seeing this as a process of maturing, Emerson considers it a process of conforming. One cannot be self-reliant without embracing nonconformity and the unrestrained attitudes of youth. The essayist is not calling for rebellion but rather a state where the world may see the individual for who he is and where the individual can concentrate on developing character on his own terms.

In addition to the constraints of conformity leveled upon individuals by society, there are the negative consequences of a desire to live up to or be consistent with past experiences. We must strive to live only in the present. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” It matters not if this leads to an individual being misunderstood. To Emerson, such a person would be in good company as he includes Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Pythagoras, Newton, and Galileo among the misunderstood. Being misunderstood is an essential component of being self-reliant and wise of spirit. “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

Acceptance of one’s individual destiny is essential to Emerson. Truths are within the person and must be found there rather than through adherence to formal religion as a way of increasing spirituality. Prayer, he feels, should not be an avenue for asking for things, but rather a method of thinking about life and becoming one with God. Individuals must follow what they believe to be right without regard to the opinions of others. Solitude is of far more use than is community in fostering self-growth.