CONNECT Postings On "Self-Reliance," ENG 372, Fall 1995


Emerson was (and still is) what a lot of people want to be. Different. He was not afraid of what people thought, and his goal was to bring other people to that state of mind. I think “Self-Reliance” is also about self-realization. Emerson is calling for an awakening to the self, a withdrawal from society so that society will accept who you are. Society has molded an idea of who you should be. It is a mold so tight, that one may believe it is a perfect fit. Society inhibits self-reliance. If one has not awakened to self-reliance, chances are his life is not his own. The person has been living in an image of what the people around them have created. Emerson writes about the rose that exists today. We should be roses with no connection to former roses, especially in our beliefs. After all, a single rose is a beautiful thing.

Emerson writes, “What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” (1146) It is important to be as independent as possible in our beliefs. Otherwise, we do not know who we are. If we are unknown to ourselves, how could we be known to any one else? “To be great is to be misunderstood.” (1148) Greatness comes with truth. You must be true to yourself before anything else. If you do not know yourself, you might as well not know anything. You must know yourself and let others know you. If they can accept you for who you are without trying to change you in any way, they are worthy of your affections. If they cannot accept you, it is better to live alone. At least you would know your surroundings are real and not an image of what society demands.


Emerson states that in order to be a man one must be a nonconformist. Don’t get him wrong though, this does not mean that the person must, to take examples from today, dress all in black, have thirteen nose rings and purple hair and listen to NIN. This is not being a nonconformist. To truly be a nonconformist one must look within and not without. He writes that, “the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it (1145).” This statement has nothing to do with physical appearance

The search for self-reliance comes from loving something, mainly yourself, for its inherit values; one should not value, like, or love something for what it can get you or what it can do for you. Emerson uses the example of Honor; “Honor is venerable to us because it is no ephemeris. . . . We love it and pay it homage, because it is not a trap for our love and homage, but is self-dependent, self-derived. . . (1149).”

He dislikes prayer because prayer is selfish, it is based on what it can get us. Interestingly enough this writing is very paradoxical. Emerson is writing on how to become a true, a better man. He is giving advice to the reader, yet in his writing he says never imitate. Never follow another. Yet in order to become a true man one must follow his advice. Now he doesn’t state that one must follow it to the letter and therefore he escapes being hypocritical.

The best line and the line that contains the most truth is on page 1153-- “All things real are so by so much virtue as they contain.” I completely agree. In fact the reader should know that I am personally biased because his views correspond quite nicely with my own views even before I read it. I do have a problem. Emerson states that “the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” This is a very relative ideal leading the reader to believe that whatever one thinks is right. He then writes about the inherit value of Honor. This implies that there are constants of good out in the world. This is a very platonic concept. Relativism and Platonism are completely opposite ideas. How does one justify both? Any answers? The only combination I can think of is that there exist in the universe certain goods, certain constants, and by looking within oneself one discovers these constants. People should then agree on these constants, but how one interprets these constants is another story. The conclusions that one draws can all be different, but the facts or constants used to get there should be the same. The why should be the same, much like the Kolbergian cognitive stages of development. One is judged not by the conclusion of an action but the thought processes one uses to achieve the conclusion of ones actions. I could be completely wrong though.

Jennifer H.

The relationship between society and a person really depends on that particular person. I feel Emerson believes in not conforming to society. “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist.” The things you do everyday, the passion you feel in your heart, your virtues,...these are all characteristics which you should not alter. Society labels all people. Whether rich man or poor man, we are all equal inside.

As for self-reliance in prayer, the sentence “Our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it,” says it all. You have to be comfortable with God and with yourself in order to become self-reliant. Emerson also feels that traveling is meant only for people who wish to study other countries. It is not meant for amusement, or sightseeing, or even going just to say you’ve been there. This is a shallow perception. The key sentences that I liked were: “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.”- This might mean that we are afraid to show our true selves to other people. That maybe we wear masks to make our selves seem better on the outside is not self-reliant.

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”- My Mom always told me that people can take everything in your possession away from you...except what is in your mind.

“What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what people think.”- Here is another example of non-conformity. We should not care what other people think. Everyone has different opinions about what we should act like. We should always do what WE feel is right in our hearts. To hell with other people’s inferences.


“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.“ In other words, in order to be a part of something (society), man has lost his individual identity. Thus, concludes Emerson, man is dependent on others for his own identity.

There are two ways that this is most obvious. The first is in religion, and I assume by that Emerson speaks specifically of Christianity. It is very simple for a person to walk into a church, sit down, recite all the prayers, listen to the sermon, and even receive communion without being changed in one’s soul. Why would somebody do all this, if they had no purpose. Well, according to Emerson, it is easy to fall into a routine that everybody else is caught up in.

Another way that man has lost his individual identity is in the approach to culture. This is especially obvious in America, where we don’t actually have a culture. First, Emerson said that we travel in order to pick up pieces of different cultures. We bring back little souvenirs from different places we have gone, and decorate our homes with them. However, in order to accomplish this, we must always be traveling We becomes discontent to stay at home, and enjoy just our culture. We have lost our individualism, because we are dependent on other people to form even our most basic identity.

One theory I have for this is that in America we have no true identity. We have many different cultures represented in this country--and each has its own distinct culture and traditions. As a result, when you ask someone about American culture, you will get their own interpretation. That interpretation is very different depending on the part of the country the person is from, and their own ethnic beginnings.

In conclusion, I feel that Emerson made an accurate observation. It has become easier for us to become one member in a whole group, than it is for us to be one member, singly, and distinct from all others.


I would like to comment on Emerson’s statement, “To be great is to be misunderstood”. He states that one barrier to self-reliance is consistency , a reverence for past acts and words, and conformity, and when we concern ourselves with thoughts and dealings from the past, we may as well concern ourselves with “the shadow on the wall”. While I don’t wholly agree with this statement, I do believe that if we focus only on the past, recent or not, we close up our minds to the possibilities of the future. However, the future being uncertain, we might believe something today, change our mind about it tomorrow, and then change our mind again the next day. If we did this on a regular basis, most people in today’s society would label us “wishy-washy “ and confusing. Emerson, however, believes this to be one reason why it is great to be misunderstood, and considers being misundersood as a mark of genius.

I am not convinced that being misunderstood is the mark of genius. What good is believing and commenting on something when other people cannot understand what is important to you or why? Also, as members of society, should we not make an effort to feed the thought processes of others so we can continue to grow as a society? My point is this; thinking beyond the present and past in great detail might be the mark of genius, however, your genius thoughts are of no good unless they help society to grow. The key for most things in life, as I believe, is balance.


In considering the embedded story about the relationship between a person and society, my impression of Emerson’s work was that he was trying to persuade the reader of the importance of each individual’s potential contributions to society. He speaks at length of the tendency of the individual to rely on the teachings of the “great” intellectuals of the past, and emphasizes that EACH individual has valid and important thoughts and ideas which should be conveyed to others. I felt very inspired by his words, in particular when he said, “to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.” (1144)

In that quote, Emerson touched on one of the key barriers to self-reliance, and that is our tendency to keep our thoughts and our actions to ourselves until they become someone else’s. In refusing to act, or simply endlessly putting off making our actions realities, we are left to follow the words and actions of others. Once the action or thought is brought forth, it is of no matter that we may have come up with it first. The best of intentions are worthless when put up against real action. So it seems that the first barrier is the barrier of self.

The second barrier, it seemed, is that of society as a whole. Emerson speaks of having to be a non-conformist in order to achieve self-reliance, and that society will work against you in your effort to achieve this state. He spoke of having to work against standards and practices that have been set up in our churches, education, and work places that become barriers in reaching a state of self-reliance. It is amazing to me, that 100 years later, the same problem still exists in great proportions.

Two quotes struck me as being the backbone of the message that Emerson was trying to convey with this work. They are “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents” and “What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” In these quotes, Emerson deals with (1) the root of the problem we all must face and (2) what we must do to overcome that problem. The second quote, in particular, is one that we have seen paraphrased (though greatly reduced) even today, which speaks to the wisdom of the words. Remember Nike’s “Just Do It” ad campaign? The fundamental idea of that ad campaign was supportive (whether intentionally or not) of Emerson’s work.

Overall, my reaction to the work is one of relief. It is a relief to me that I have finally been able to read something which is not only an assignment for a class, but which is truly useful in my daily life. Working on a full time school schedule and a full time job schedule while trying to maintain my sanity and my household certainly requires that I gain as much self-reliance as possible. Reading Emerson’s work is an inspiration indeed. I am reminded not to ignore my self, not just the physical being, but the intellectual as well. Being self-reliant doesn’t mean simply reacting to the assignments and “responsibilities” of each given day. It means that I must learn to listen to my heart and the depth of my mind in order to make decisions and take actions that will be most fulfilling and in the end, giving me the most benefit in the end.


I felt that the title of this work accurately portrayed what was contained within. Emerson is trying to tell the reader basically to have faith in yourself and to believe in yourself. Everyone has had the experience where a question is asked and you have the answer is in your head, but you are a little hesitant to say it out loud. Someone else has the guts and not only gets the answer right but is recognized for doing so. Even though we know that we had the right answer, it is not the same as getting the attention for sharing it with everyone. I think that this is what Emerson is trying to say. One can rely only on one’s self for the “right” answer to any given question or problem. Emerson also points out some of man’s weaknesses in conjunction with this main idea of self-reliance. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts . . . tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.” I believe that this is the main idea and the most important point.


The embedded story about the relationship between a person and society is that society forms people by creating norms and encouraging staying normal. Emerson said throughout time, society has ridiculed different opinions thus keeping men from being themselves. The two major barriers to self reliance are society and conformity. The “Aboriginal Self” and the “Trustee” are Spontaneity and Instinct. This modifies the egotism of self-reliance in that they allow for pure, raw, original self-formulating opinions and ideas. They come from within, not from society.

Society’s religion is questioned as to ‘Why worship the past- past people, past views, ideas’- They are all old. He thinks that as the future progresses, things, ideas get distorted, meaning the past thousands of years must surely be outdated and warped by now. Prayers lose themselves in endless mazes of miracles and natural\ supernatural experiences. As for travelling, he thinks imitation is a form of traveling The idea that when the body cannot travel freely and far, the mind will. And for art, he gets into the idea that man thinks he is advanced because he has modern materials but he really makes no advance at all because he regresses as much as he progresses. For example he says,”The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.”

Emerson believes that the reliance of property is the desire of self-reliance. Emerson believes that the secret of fortune is joy in our hands- meaning, without joy and happiness you can have no fortune. As for fate, he believes that when we strengthen in our selves, we will shun fate.

“Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense...” I interpret this thought to mean that once an idea is made public, universality will be made possible because it is no longer held within but it may be shared and revised if possible so that many will have connection to it.

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." This quote is saying that the conspiracy against the manhood of men is conformation and uniformity. Society strives for mass agreement when in fact, inside every man hides a unique view and opinion afraid to be outspoken in fear of rejection and ridicule.


“Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense”, in my opinion, is basically saying that whatever you believe is truth simply because you believe it. A belief cannot be read false or true. If this were so, it would be called a fact.

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” This is generally stating that if you trust yourself, then you can truly be content in whatever you do or wherever you go. “What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what people think.” This is something that everyone deals with. You can’t base your actions and feelings on how others judge you. What you think about yourself should come from somewhere within and should not be confused with the interpretations of others. My favorite line in this selection is, “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 plot of ground which is given to him to till.” In essence, this line is saying that trying to be like everyone else will ultimately strip you of your identity. You must accept who you are and only then can you make yourself feel worthy, because until you feel confident about yourself, you cannot make your mark anywhere.


This reading “Self Reliance” by R.W. Emerson is more like a speech than anything else. There were many times when he ran on and on, for this surely was a long piece for the type of writing it is. Emerson tells us to be able to rely on ourselves in life and not to build our thoughts and decisions upon others views of what we should be doing. “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” (p. 1145) If it is not right for me it would not make sense to abide by it, or believe in it. I believe in the things that are right for me and according to my personal value and truth.

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” (p. 1145) Trust yourself, and believe that your true value/truth lies within yourself and not someone else.

“Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.” (p. 1147) Do not live for someone else, else your own life has no worth. Trust in the value your own life holds. Your life is for you just as others’ lives are for them.

If you are not honest with yourself then facades occur. This is a barrier with self reliance because facades separate you from who you really are, your true self. Your value and worth is hidden or torn down with lying and facades.


The narrator’s titling of the project as “self-reliance” implies that one must be true to the self above all others. If one is not true to himself, he can not accurately perceive the world of man as it truly is. All overt action on the part of an actor is a pretense, not truly defining who and what a person represents in his soul. One must, above all else, live his life in the present, instinctually acknowledging that though his actions may emit outrage and disapproval from those who exist around him, as long as he is true and honest with himself no amount of ridicule and exclusion can make him any less of a person. According to the narrator, conformity, consistency, and regret are all barriers blocking the access of the self to true acknowledgment of one’s soul. If one is a conformist to a particular sect or group, his opinion and thought will always be slightly tainted with the stain emitted by the consciousness of that particular group. But if one is always true to himself, without prejudice to other biased opinions, the world could not possibly interject its mind-set upon the individual.


Emerson obviously believes that man should not settle for becoming what society has already prescribed for him. It is apparent that he feels that too often we are smothered by what other people believe ant think and lose sight of the fact that we all have minds of our own and we should not fear independence. By letting yourself conform to what society believes or by living your life exactly how people of the past have lived is a waste of a mind and of an imagination (according to Emerson). His idea that we all need to rely on ourselves for success and happiness is great, although Emerson seems to be a little radical in his campaign to shut ourselves off completely from what has occured in the past in terms of past views, religions, arts, education, and politics. While we all need to have our own sense of being , I believe that moderation is the key- we need to have an appreciation for ideas and beliefs that have already been brought to light while at the same time focusing on our own talents and abilities that enable us to be unique and independent.

Jason W.

To the sentence: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” I feel that Emerson’s meaning to this is that you can never be bigger than anyone else if the ideas you propose are not your own. That is, without new ideas from every individual, then things will not change and people will never grow, they will continue to live in their “foolish consistency.” A point that I really think goes along with this is when he says, “Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.” People to Emerson have become quiet little beings. Everybody has their ideas, and all of their ideas are amazing and nearly revolutionary. BUT what happens is that nobody realizes what they are thinking. They never see what they think. When someone eventually comes out and pronounces the concepts, everybody recognizes them as their own but they are forced to go along with everybody else in following the old/new idea.

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Emerson is very much a truthful man (at least that is what he preaches) and he trust himself in what he says. An idea I picked up on was that truth is the essence of man. Always speak the truth because that is the only way you can be true to yourself. By trusting yourself, then your heart will not ache with guilt and your conscience will not tear your mind. When you can trust yourself you are living in a state of peace and your heart vibrates like a string on a guitar, making music pleasing to the ear and the body.

“Travelling is a fool’s paradise.” What he says about traveling is that if you do it to learn and expand yourself, then that is good. Hopefully you will see that the truth is universal and expression of the truth should be a moral law. However, traveling for fun is the same as running from the truth and in a sense running from yourself. Emerson must not have been the vacationing type. Either way though, I don’t feel that Emerson knew that by relaxing and getting away from a certain atmosphere, the truth may become easier to handle and confide.