Socrates said “Know thyself,” and after reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance, we could paraphrase Emerson’s main point as “Trust thyself.”
What if we trusted ourselves- our inner most thoughts, our actions, our perceptions, our wills? What if we were to strive for a more meaningful independent life and not settle for the sullen mediocrity encouraged by society’s institutions? Self-Reliance was first published in 1841, but Emerson’s words still ring with an awakening truth 177 years later. In this post, I hope to bring across some of the key points Emerson made which spoke to me personally.
Emerson states that we should look more to our thoughts and not be so dependent on the words of the past:
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.”1
This work we must do ourselves:
“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; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that lot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”2
We must believe in ourselves:
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you; the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.”3
Emerson warns us that society will push back against those who seek to go their own way:
“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society is a joint stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity.”4
Emerson states that we must shun conformity in order to find our truth:
“Self-reliance is its [conformity’s] aversion. It [conformity] loves not realities and creators, but names and customs. Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind.”5
As we venture out on this new self-reliant life, people will question us, and may even misunderstand our intentions. Emerson states that if we are misunderstood, then we are in good company:
“Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? 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.”6
Emerson makes many more wonderful points, but for the sake of time and space, I would encourage you to seek them out on your own. The last points I will make concerning Self-Reliance is that I find some of Emerson’s points parallel that of the Stoic philosphers, especially when he discusses the spark of divinity each of us possess, the importance of living in the present moment, and that our happiness is solely up to us, principles I have learned and have tried to implement along the recentstops of my life’s journey. God bless.
1Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Introduction and notes by Peter Norberg. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics. 2004: 113-114.
5Ibid, 116, brackets mine.
6 Ibid, 120.