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?
Quotes from Self-Reliance
It's worth thinking about these quotes. 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
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
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
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.
do not write and maintain this site for a salary; my sole support
for this site's expenses is the Amazon.com donation jar (above), and
Amazon.com book links and other commercial links I've added to the
you'll see targeted suggestions on many of this site's pages. You
can use the links to find books at the library or at your local
bookstore, but buying books directly through the links on
this site will help pay the cost of this site and help keep it
If you'd like to report an error or broken link, or
suggest a link, please include this URL in your