Tuesday, January 02, 2007


THE FOLLOWING IS TAKEN FROM THE WEBSITE: http://www.transcendentalists.com/self_reliance_analysis.htm

Help in understanding Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, Self-Reliance:

"It is said to be the age of the first person singular" - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind." - Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Self-Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" is often the first or only exposure students get to Emerson's thought. Here are some resources to help understand this essay:


What is Transcendentalism?
An essay introducing the background and context of Transcendentalism, for help in understanding where Emerson's ideas came from.

Transcendentalism - Definitions
From Emerson himself, with some dictionary and other simple definitions listed as well.

Basic information on Transcendentalism - links to the two items above plus more.

Self-Reliance Online

Self-Reliance - HTML searchable copy of the text at EmersonCentral.com

About Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance"

On Self-Reliance
Ann Woodlief's excellent introduction to the Emerson essay, Self-Reliance.

Emerson and the Irony of Self-Reliance: An American Response to Nihilism
An article by Alfred I. Tauber (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader). Looks at the problem of selfhood in Emerson's essay and relates that to relevance today, especially in religious belief in our increasingly-secular age.

Versions of Romanticism From Emerson's Self-Reliance
A short essay, some selections from the essay, and some excellent questions for thinking about Emerson's ideas.

Culture of the Common Man
A short introduction to American culture about 1841, looking at Emerson's essay and its relationship to ideas of democracy, culture and the masses.

Self-Reliance and Ralph Waldo Emerson
A Unitarian Universalist minister muses about the position of Emerson in that faith today, where he's often considered a "prophet of religious liberalism."

Self-Reliance (1841) - about the book and its author

Essays based on Self-Reliance

Note to lazy students: don't think to copy these -- your teacher also knows where they are! They're here to show some examples of how students have approached the topic. Rely on your own self!

After Reading Emerson's Self-Reliance

Self-Reliance and Creative Destruction - by Bryan Caplan

Self-Reliance Now - Kristen Rosenfeld

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance - Piper S. Colemanscurry

Response to Emerson’s Self-Reliance

Writing about Self-Reliance

If you're trying to write an essay on what Self-Reliance means, be sure to take Emerson's own ideas into consideration! A good teacher assigning an essay on Self-Reliance will admire a student who takes Emerson's thought seriously. Parroting back what you think the teacher wants to hear about Emerson is to violate the very spirit of the essay!

But that doesn't mean that you can write just anything. Emerson's essay urges us to take our ideas seriously, not lightly. Does your idea resonate with your innermost voice of reason and conscience?

Quotations from "Self-Reliance"

It's worth thinking about these quotations. Try to figure out what they mean. Sometimes they make more sense when you see them in context -- do a search on the essay online to find their context.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.
It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.
Travelling is a fool's paradise.
Insist on yourself; never imitate.
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.
The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.
Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not.
And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance.
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

Some questions to think about:

How is Emerson's idea of Self-Reliance different from and similar to the common use of the term (take care of your own needs and don't depend on others outside yourself)?
Is Emerson really saying "Believe anything you want to believe and do anything you want to do"? Is he really saying "Nothing outside yourself matters"?
In what ways is Emerson speaking religiously -- that is, about our relationship to the divine?
Emerson's religious ideas are claimed today by groups as diverse as the Unitarian Universalists and the Mormons. Does this make sense? How have such different religious groups made use of Emerson's ideas, especially those in "Self-Reliance"?
How do Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and Thoreau's ideas (in "Walden" and elsewhere) inspire the environmental and sustainable growth movements today?
What would Emerson think of the survivalist movement?
What would Emerson think of 21st century American capitalism?
Would Emerson's ideas as expressed in this essay result in a stronger or weaker government? More or less democracy?
Was Emerson a liberal or conservative -- and in what ways? (You might also want to read Emerson's essay "The Conservative.")
What would Emerson think about today's libertarianism?
If you're familiar with the work of Ayn Rand, how is Emerson alike, how is he different?
What would Emerson say about the human capacity for good and for evil?
How have Emerson's ideas helped shape our concept of the American Dream?
Should students read more essays of Emerson, or just this one? Is this the best selection from Emerson for a high school or college student?

A closing thought:

Like many thinkers, Emerson's thought evolved through his lifetime. He later came to value social reform movements and group action more than he did in his early life. This was perhaps partly due to the maturity one gains in the life cycle, perhaps partly due to the failure of individual philanthropy to solve the increasing social problems of his age, perhaps partly due to the issue of slavery, in which the individual interests of slave vs. slaveholder were in stark contrast. But certainly, Emerson's later writing was more interested in relationships among people, and ethical behavior, than early works like "Self-Reliance" may indicate. Nevertheless, the worldview expressed in "Self-Reliance" is not, I would contend, one of radical separation of the individual from the rest of the universe, though Emerson has sometimes been accused of that view.

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