Summary of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance

Self-Reliance is taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lectures and was published in 1841 in the collection titled Essays: First Series. It has come to be one of the most widely read essays by Emerson and is behind the foundational ideas that construct transcendentalism and individualism (American).


The essay opens with a Latin epigraph Ne te quaesiveris extra,” which means “Do not seek outside yourself.” It is roughly made up of three parts. In the first part, Emerson talks about how self-reliance is important as a concept. In the second part he elaborates on the relationship between self-reliance and the individual and in the third part he describes how society and self-reliance can function with each other.

Emerson begins the essay with an anecdote about a painter whose verses he read. He found them “original and not conventional”. He believes that this kind of original holds true value, whatever the subject may be. This story asserts the central idea of what he is going to talk about in the entire essay: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.” For him all truths actually begin in our minds and are then projected outwards. What was once our innermost thought transforms into the outmost later. It is also one of the central ideas of Transcendentalism. We should go on an inward voyage and look within ourselves and instead of dismissing those thoughts, appreciate them. We need to look at ourselves and not look for ideas in others’ minds. Our minds continuously send us signals. We need to learn how to detect those flashes of light that cross our minds instead of leaning on the light of what has been passed down to us by bards and sages. But individuals tend to dismiss “without notice his (their) thought, because it is his (theirs)”. Self-acceptance and self-discovery are the qualities that education should teach us, not “imitation” or “envy”. The cultivation of knowledge has to be done in the fields of our minds instead of being derived from others. “Trust thyself” and the “transcendent destiny” of your life.

Now, to be able to trust ourselves we need to take a trip to our childhood and the openness that we experienced along with it. Our childhood was filled with “oracles” that nature yielded in us. As babies and children we used to be “unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted” and slowly we lose all these attributes as we grow up. This authenticity that we used to carry is lost to the conformity that society demands out of us. We can hear these fading voices of authenticity in our heads till they become “inaudible as we enter into the world.” In order to be self-reliant, one needs to acknowledge that “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind and “must be(come) a non-conformist.” Definitions handed down to us through education are not to be trusted entirely. We must not seek morality and goodness from “large societies and dead institutions.” A self-reliant individual “must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness … The only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” Emerson believes that he must do what concerns him and not what others think he should do.

Blindly listening to churches whose values are dead and political parties that are outdated will conceal “the impression of your character.” Emerson advices us not to make false connections by socialising with people as he would like us to build our reputation through hard work. He further says that religious communities have fixed ideologies and promote unoriginality and conformity. If he knows a person’s religious inclination, he becomes aware of the arguments that person is going to provide. In this manner the individual’s freedom is curbed and a minister preaching for a particular religious sect is bound by “communities of opinion.”

Emerson then proceeds to say how not only the society but we also cause our own limitations. As individuals, we are afraid of trusting ourselves with anything new and get too comfortable with consistencies of our life. Any change or contradictory opinions scare us and we shun it: “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers, and divines.” We need to grow out of our comfortable cocoons are explore new ideas every single day.

Our conformity actually shadows our true character. If we remind someone of something else then there is no originality in that. Each character should be highly individualised and that does not come with behaviour that is conforming in nature. If we look at history we can see how only a few people’s biographies stand out and thus they acquire centre stage. To be able to practice self reliance we need to have the right kind of confidence within ourselves. We shouldn’t feel inferior in front of anything, be it a person, a book or a place. We need to own it and formulate our own “verdict” about it. Be it “kingdom or lordship” or “a common day’s work”, they carry the same value. Our regular activities are as crucial as any “renowned” activities of the past. According to him, self trust is a virtue that will bring forth our genius.

Talking about the presence of God in our lives and self-trust, Emerson argues that if God exists, he should “communicate, not one thing but all things.” Truth will reveal itself to us directly, without a mediator. He advises us to rely on god of experience and not on the god of books. By giving us the example of how nature runs on self-sufficiency, he asks us to trust our experiences and instincts before anyone else’s opinions. Nature always survives in the present without falling back on the past and we should learn how to do the same.

He then discusses about the society and the self. He says that we need to fend for ourselves and take entire responsibility about our actions. Whatever “folly” we witness around us, be it family or friends, we do not need to adapt them. We should look at the world as if it is conspiring against us by clouding our minds with trivialities of day to day relationships: “No man can come near me through my act”. We need to outgrow the customs surrounding us and concentrate on following “the eternal law”. According to him, one should not sacrifice one’s freedom and power in order to save relationships. He further says that we should be “godlike” and formulate our own laws and doctrines. Society functions in a way so as to cripple us and makes us afraid of fulfilling our own wants. Society chooses our life and relationships for us and we keep waiting for chance to strike.

In the next part, Emerson analyses social life by listing four aspects about it. He says we need to have “a greater self-reliance” that can begin a revolution in these different areas of society. The first one is religion and the first thing that is problematic about religion is prayer. Self-Reliance and prayer are opposite to each other because praying involves seeking guidance “abroad”. He questions the need for praying as if we are truly one with God, why do we need to beg through prayer. The guidance and validation that we seek through prayers originates in our “regrets” and discontentment in life. Prayers are the result of some intelligent religious minds and if they are popularised among untrained minds, it results in idolatry. People believing in that faith soon begin to look up to their masters and thus blindly follow them.

The second aspect is the culture of Americans. He says that many Americans love travelling to Europe looking to self-culture themselves because America lacks it. Emerson challenges the popular notion of travelling and says that a true self-reliant person should need not travel: “the soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home”. Travelling shouldn’t be done in a quest for knowledge; rather the traveller should learn not to expect anything other than what they already know. We usually travel for a change of space or to escape the sadness we are experiencing. But according to Emerson these are false expectations as irrespective of the place the person will have to face: “the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I (they) fled from”.

The third aspect where the concept of self-culture is applied by Emerson is art. All kinds of travelling and imitation of cultures foreign to us are reflective of the unsoundness of our minds. He calls the intellect of Americans “vagabond” and advises Americans to get out of the remains of the past and distant lands. There is a need for us to realise that “beauty, convenience, grandeur of thought exist around us, not in faraway places. He further says that we need to self-teach ourselves and no teacher can make us aware of who we are. We have to learn to know ourselves and stay away from mere imitations. He cites the example of Shakespeare who never had any master.

The fourth aspect Emerson talks about is the relationship of “spirit of society” with itself and with self-reliance. Addressing how society is actually stagnant he explains how for everything that is given to us, something is taken away with it. He supports this statement with some examples: with the advent of civilization, we lost our “aboriginal strength”, we lost our skills with technological advancement and virtue is replaced by religion. Real progress can happen only when we are convinced that “no greater men are now than ever were”. He uses the analogy of a wave to describe how society’s progress is actually stagnant as even of the wave keeps moving forward, the water stays the same. Society makes us dependent on properties and alliances with institutions and thereby we lose all connections with ourselves. We should divert our energy towards protecting our individual personalities instead of protecting these institutions. We keep on looking for chance and fortune to knock at our doors while instead we should concentrate on gaining peace from within.

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