Self Reliance

Published 06 Jan 2017

The crowd was behaving in the usual way, with movements so coordinated that motion could have been mistaken for stillness. Yet a ripple caught my eye. It traveled like whirlpool through the sea of people that collected outside the stadium to watch the big game. Everyone moved in one direction, toward the large gate through which the field was visible.

Yet the lone boy shouldering the crowd was interesting enough for me to drop everything to see what this non-conformist was trying to achieve. The path was grueling, and much longer than necessary as the boy had to keep changing direction to avoid collision with others who were determined to take the conformer’s route into the stadium. Yet the boy weathered the onslaught resolutely and kept his unconventional course. I watched while the rebel managed to extricate itself from crowd and made his way to a smaller gate that no one else had seen in their rush to follow the everyone else.

The situation sparked the memory of an essay once read: “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It reminded me specifically of Emerson’s description of the ship that must “tack” in order to finish a course that is set against the wind. Emerson puts forth the idea that not only must man rely upon himself, but cut out his own path in the world and set himself apart from it. He should be like the man that made his tracks visible by steering them in a different direction from that of all the others of the crowd. Rather than do what is dictated by society, people should act according to the desires and impulses of their own nature.

In “Self Reliance” Emerson writes of the rare quality in men to resist the pressures of their society to conform. This pressure often comes about in the form of accepted behaviors, the learning of which is termed “maturity.” Yet Emerson goes against this when he says that “whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist” (Emerson, 261).This offers an opposite view of maturity which states that the ability of persons to know intimately their own nature and to respond to their impulses is a truer sign of maturity than familiarity with and obedience to society’s norms.

He suggests that the act of exploring ones own psyche offers more rewards than that of learning and performing society’s proper duties for two reasons: The first will go directly to the exact needs of the human inpidual, while the second will only hinder and hide the inpiduality that leads to creativity and progress for man. One must remember that “Our only access to truth, goodness, or to life itself, is through our own understanding and our own judgments” (Miller, 2006). This lets us know that the inpidual is the only one who can tell for sure what he or she is to be.

Trying to keep tradition alive, according to Emerson, does something that is similar to stunting the development of mankind. Yet it is surprisingly easy to do. What is difficult is to rise above the collective will express one’s inpiduality. However, Emerson writes that the accomplishment of such a feat “may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness” (Emerson, 263). The difficulty in rising to the level at which one might be called an inpidual is hampered by those in society who pretend to know what is the purpose of all other human beings. Yet to abandon society and go into solitude is a way in which a person can shut out the droning of the crowd and find a place where nature can be free to influence the will.

Emerson’s concern is that people’s actions indicate their character, and when a man’s actions are dictated by the traditions of decades or centuries, a third party will have trouble detecting the true character of the man that performs them. Such a man is indistinguishable from the other conformists that surround him. He no longer sees “with eyes cleansed of the effects of the group mind and institutional constrictions” (Kateb, 1995). Such persons have lost the carefree attitude of the youths who (unlike adults) are without self-consciousness and do not seek to flatter or pacify persons; for the young person, no one is set up on a pedestal.

In keeping with this, Emerson describes the character of youth that gives the kind of self reliance that he praises. “He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you” (Emerson, 261). No power that a person thinks he can see in any human would make the youth and the self reliant man to feel the need to give false praise.

Emerson highlights his belief by his idea that books and scholars are to be treasured for their ability to inspire the inpidual to greatness (Goodman, 2005). He identifies the way men idolize such persons that distinguish themselves through self reliance as an example of something contradictory. Men are equally likely to revere the ideas given by persons in books as they are to put kings and leaders on pedestals. Yet, Emerson’s reaction to this is negative. He writes:

Our reading is mendicant and sycophantic. In history, our imagination plays us false. Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day’s work; but the things of life are the same to both; the sum total of both is the same. Why all this deference to Alfred, and Scanderbeg, and Gustavus? Suppose they were virtuous; did they wear out virtue? As great a stake depends on your private act to-day, as followed their public and renowned steps. When private men shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen (Emerson, 268).

In this passage, Emerson reminds the reader that the life of the private and unknown man is as worthy of praise as that of the most powerful king, once that life is lived in truth and keeping with the nature at the core of the person’s being (Beran, 2004).

Another point Emerson makes is that the praise that persons give to history and its events is directed in the wrong way. He speaks of this largely as it regards tradition and convention. Yet, he further causes the idea to include the private actions of even the inpidual himself. He believes that man should not cling even to his own actions and beliefs of the past merely because he has kept them for months, or even years. Movement is involved in living, and the growing and changing man cannot mature unless he goes back and reassesses his beliefs and actions from time to time.

It is no crime or shame to change one’s mond if one has found a reason to do so—one that more accurately expresses his or her nature. To rely only on one’s memory of what one has said or done in the past in order to avoid public contradiction might lead to an even worse contradiction—that of oneself as one has now evolved to become. Emerson gives the metaphor of memory as a corpse that one drags about. A corpse is dead, while a person’s character is a living, changing thing. Emerson continues: “a foolish inconsistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and in the presence such faulty adherence to consistency, “a great soul has simply nothing to do” since all would have already been done (Emerson, 265).

According to Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance,” men, like that lone man in the crowd, must be willing to go against the pressures of conformity and be true, not to tradition, but to themselves. Only in such an environment is greatness thought of and nourished. A person cannot know precisely who he is if he continues to be ruled by society—and the inpidual, if he can be identified, is more likely to contribute something worthwhile to society when s/he is truly being him/herself. Emerson began his essay by identifying a truly original piece of writing.

Had the writer been a conformist, his nature (which differs from that of all other men) would never have been revealed, and his originality would have been lost in the dullness of everyday life. Though the choice to be oneself includes the choice to disregard all the points made in the essay, yet only that choice matters. Regardless of the outcome, one who chooses according to his nature would have achieved higher level of self reliance.

Works Cited

  • Beran, Michael Knox. “Self Reliance vs. Self Esteem.” City Journal. Winter, 2004. Retrieved May 19, 2006 <>
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self Reliance.” Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures. Library of America, 1983.
  • Goodman, R. “Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2005 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Retrieved May 19, 2006
  • Kateb, George. Emerson and Self Reliance. Abstract. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.
  • Miller, George. “Emerson’s Optimism.” Paper presented at the University of Maine at Farmington, December 7, 2005. Retrieved May 19, 2006. .
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