(Graduate Class, VCU)
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The relationship between person/society in "Self-Reliance" is visibly negligible. Emerson falls prey to countless ideal fantasies in this essay, most notable of which is the illusion that one can exist without society as a kind of self-reliant superman. What Emerson fails to acknowledge is that the individual is molded by society -- not in the Behaviorist sense, which means to say that s/he is exclusively determined by society, but in the pragmatic sense, which means that we are influenced by/a product of a particular culture. Furthermore, we NEED society; man alone in Nature cannot survive. We have built civilization as a protectant against the material indifference and destruction of Nature, which the silly Emerson assumes to be benevolent/nurturing to the individual. But lo, it is only through the aid of other men that Man survives at all.

The two barriers to self reliance are conformity and consistency. Although I dispute Emerson's claim to genuine self reliance, I concur with him on this point, which is a reformulation: we need society, but this does not entail complacency and passive acceptance. The most vital members of society are precisely those who question, undermine, or resist its influence, thus recreating (and renewing) society.

Emerson's helpful points concerning conformity and consistency are two means of resistance. "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist," Emerson writes sagely. To shake off the adhesing tentacles of society, to stand defiant and unique, is the aspiration of all who seek enlightenment -- or, in Emerson's beautifully poetic statement, "the sacred integrity of your own mind." The only problem with Emerson is of course this poetic sagacity, which describes or inspires instead of showing a concrete means; it concerns itself with "what" instead of "how." Nonconformity is a noble ideal, but Emerson does not explain how to enact it except in the most general -- which is to say poetically fluid -- manner. The same is true for his argument against consistency, which I like better nonetheless. To be inconsistent is a sign of the great, Emerson says, which makes all of us who are consistently inconsistent feel better.


Man must work on his own and be diligent and truthful in that work to produce a better society. Man must be willing to take risks instead of conforming to the rules of society in order to prosper. Man should control society instead of allowing society to control him.

The two major barriers to self-reliance are conformity and relying on the past. The Trustee is man, himself, when he trusts his own intuition. This modifies the egotism of self-reliance because it makes it common to all men and it creates the view that self-reliance is not based on intellect but on common sense.

Self-reliance allows one to progress in any situation. It implies that there would be no king or higher government; all would be equal. Self-reliance does not allow men to claim that they know God and use archaic terminology because in this way men revert to the past for authority. Man should realize that his life is built on fate and chance and he has no power to control the outcome.

"Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members" Society seeks conformity. Society wants to impose government, rules, law on its people so they can be puppet-like. Emerson proposes that men live based on their own individual instincts thereby creating their own internal law. Emerson believes that men fail to prosper because they allow society to think for them.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblins of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." Emerson believes in living in the present and not in the past. When men quote existing material from past philosophers, they fail to exert their own creativity. Nothing new is created and intellect becomes cyclical instead of linear. Men do not express their souls when they enforce only what others have already professed.


Emerson is saying that society is ultimately in opposition to the individual (actually, it's in a conspiracy against man) and self-reliance is its aversion. He negatively views society, aligning it with conformity, as a form of "self inflicted punishment." Society doesn't want the individual to have strength; it wants he or she to be dependent. "Insist on yourself" is the message of this piece. He wants everyone to trust their instincts and believe that what is true for them is going to be true for everyone. Think for yourself, be original, follow what is in your heart, "look to no one outside yourself"--Thoreau continues this line of thinking on in Walden (marching to the beat of your own drummer). Emerson equates freedom with the expression of personal conviction which is unrestrained by regulations or rules. He would definitely hate living in the "politically correct" nineties where every word out of your mouth needs to be screened before it leaves so as to not offend anyone. When you conform, you go against your will and therefore you are not being true to yourself.

The aboriginal self, the trustee-- Spontaneity or Instinct, which is the source of genius, virtue, life and wisdom. The highest wisdom is Intuition. I like that. I'm an ENFP, so I'll agree that Intuition is superior, thank you very much. I

mplications of self-reliance for: Religion--he thinks that if you pray for something in particular; if you have a motive or are seeking to gain through prayer then it is a vicious act. If, however, you pray because you are contemplating the facts of life, then that's O.K. He says all religions are the creations of a few imaginative men. I guess he dislikes organized religion because it is just that--organized. There's no creativity, spontaneity or originality in it.

Travelling--people want to travel because they have a lack of knowledge of themselves. They think that by going somewhere else, they will be enriched. Emerson says to stay put and "get to know yourself." The reason places become great is because people stayed there and figured out who they were. Because they did so, they were able to create greatness. This is perhaps quite irrelevant, but I wonder what great works he is thinking about. I guess he'd dig Emily Dickenson. Now there is someone who stayed put for the most part. Anyways, he says that it is alright to want to learn about other cultures just so long as you don't copy them.

Art--this section reminds me of Poe's Sonnet to Science. As new art is acquired, something must also be lost. There is always a price. One step forward in one regard is a step backwards in another.

Property and the Government--you should be ashamed to own anything, especially if you came to own it by accident. Material objects have no root in you; there is no connection. He says that your lot in life will find you, not the other way around. Property enslaves people.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statements and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do"--It's O.K. to contradict yourself. It's good to be misunderstood. People who think alike can be easily controlled. By contradicting yourself and never thinking the same, one can have ultimate freedom. Life changes; our understanding and knowledge are ever increasing. So too should our opinions and thoughts. Life is not static, neither should our minds be. It is impossible to violate your nature. If you feel one way today and another way tomorrow, it's O.K.--as long as comes from within you.


Emerson seemed to be saying that man's relationship with society was an internally competitive one. Man should constantly be in a struggle with social rules and mores, and historical perceptions of "the good". Man should look within himself to discover what the real "Truth" is, regardless of the public's perception. We are solitary beings that must strive to remain that way.

Man is also a combination of the animal self and the rational self. The animal self receives information from his innate instincts and intuition. The rational self, or trustee is the self that deals with logic and reason. The presence of these two allows the concept of egotism to participate in a larger, grand scale. All egos are involved with a greater Truth, therefore they are all connected.

Self-reliance seems to open the door to all kinds of possibilities. The first time that I read this I thought that Emerson was saying that it was good to get away from all public relations and business: "Live for yourself, support yourself, grow your own garden to feed you, kill a deer to feed and clothe you, live and think on your own, don't participate in foolish societal functions," and so on. Now I see it as "rely on yourself to get what you can, but what way beat suits you (with regard to Truth), know yourself before you travel to different places, don't involve yourself with organized religion, acquire what land you can, involve yourself in government by expressing what you think is good and true, fight to always better yourself by ignoring any possibility of faith," and so on.

"What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what the people think." - The public or certain institutions always think that they know what is good for an individual. They think that their perception is often better than the individual's own perception. What Emerson is saying here is to ignore what society tells you, and search yourself to find what concerns you and how you will go about understanding it. Society only seems to muddle in the individuals business, and somehow have a say in the way people should conduct their lives. "

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." - This is the absolute goal of human existence, to find this integrity. It is a life long journey that can only be discovered through truthfully searching with in one's self.


1. The embedded story about the relationship between a person and society seems to be one of prisoner and tyrrant, according to Emerson. "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." (1145)

2. I thought the two major barriers to self-reliance were society and ". . . reverence for our past act or word. . . ."(1147) The "aboriginal Self" is some mythological personage who keeps the spirit of a person alive and able to commit original acts. This concept implies that everyone has this part to them and is capable of achieving self-reliance.

3. Business- making money in an original,non-destructive way. I don't think Emerson opposes industry, but the dangers of complacency once some form of success is reached. Emerson regards prayer as extremely important, ". . . the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul."(1155) To be self-reliant in religious terms would imply a more personal relationship with one's creator, found outside the organized church, and this would not mean organizing another church the way one believed. For art, continually stepping outside the accepted boundaries, or more traditional fields, such as pastoral paintings or landscape artists. Property ownership is minimal in Emerson's eyes, he doesn't feel anyone really owns the land. He places more value on achieving for one's self than inheriting property or wealth. The whole essay is motivated by chance and fate, but grounded in industry. Emerson promotes the freedom behind opportunity, "So use all that is called Fortune."(1160)

Quotes: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." Boiling all values, principles, morals down, strip ever decision down to the core and you have yourself to blame or praise. Everything emits from this integral part of one's self.

"It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail." I don't think anyone has existed without some "foreign support", some help from somebody or something. Life would be maddening for someone that free. But I think that Emerson's opinion on achieving success is correct, I can think of two quotes that correspond to this, "it is easier for a fat man to make it through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven", and " the path to salvation is straight and narrow, like the razor's edge" both seem to reflect Emerson's quote.