Points and questions to consider as you read "Self-Reliance"

Emerson: "the infinitude of the private man"

General: For Emerson, Truth (or Spirit) is indwelling in the Universe, expressed through nature and man and perceived through Reason (or Intuition) rather than just understanding (reason, logic). All things are potentially microcosms, containing the germs of all Truth. Likewise, his sentences and metaphors all explore the same Truth, and so are not to be read as logical arguments. So don't be surprised if his essays seem rather circular, presenting similar ideas from many different angles. In the end, he says, all truth has to do with the "infinitude of the private man."

To read this essay well, you must underline sentences that seem significant and try to put them in your own words. In particular, note the sentences which are marked in this on-line marked copy of the essay.


How does (and should) a person define his/her place in society? (what does Emerson mean by "society" anyhow?)

What are the two major barriers to self-reliance (in your own words)? Who is the "aboriginal Self," the "Trustee"? How does this concept modify the egotism of self-reliance?

What are the implications of self-reliance for business? for religion (prayers, creeds)? for travelling? for art? for property ownership and government?

Here are some of the key sentences marked in context. How would you put any of them in your own words?

"Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense...."

"We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents."

"Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members."

"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

""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 statemens and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do."

"The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul."

"Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose."

"Just as men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect."

"Travelling is a fool's paradise."

"In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit thereafter out of fear from her rotations....Nothing can bring you peace but yourself." 

Introductory Lecture on "Self-Reliance" with Class Discussions