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Self-Reliance by Emerson Research Papers

Self-Reliance is studied in philosophy and literature courses accross the United States at the college level. Paper Masters writes custom research papers on Emerson's Self-Reliance to help student's understand the complex philosophy behind Emerson's train of thought.

In an Emerson essay on Self-Reliance, the essay should point out that Emerson urges mankind to adopt an attitude of trust in oneself.  In the first half of the essay, he talks about the dangers inherent in putting value on conformity and consistency.  We have a tendency to not place enough value on our own ideas, especially if they run counter to general opinion.  Self-RelianceChildren, who have not learned to be political about their opinions, do not hesitate to express their honest views.  The more “civilized” we become, the more value we tend to place on conformity, and the less we are inclined to be honest about our own views.  A secondary problem is that we even try to conform to what we have previously said we think, so that we are trapped into an inability to grow and change.

The truly self-reliant person does not become trapped by these constraints.  Instead he attempts to listen to his own inner voice and values his own insights as unique and profound. He does not allow himself to follow blindly after some creed, as this act would mean that he is not thinking for himself; he does not rely on prayer, but on his own will to enable him to live his life according to his own sense of rightness. By living in the present moment, not under the laws of the past or the illusory hopes for the future, man can tap into universal wisdom and clarity for himself, without the need for an intercessor.  A self-reliant person is one that has the following characteristics:

  1. A Self-reliant individual feels confident in the validity of his own instincts
  2. He/she is at home in his own skin
  3. A Self-reliant individual feels no need to imitate the models set by others, regardless of their station in life or in history 
  4. This self-reliant person trusts himself implicitly, and while he acts in a moral and altruistic way with others, he does so according to his own standards

By being true to himself and refusing to surrender his autonomy to others (or to the opinions of others), he achieves inner peace and freedom.

Does one trust oneself or embrace the great men of the age or trust in God or destiny? This is the heart of the paradox that Emerson’s essay represents and some critics justify the paradox as representing the quintessential struggle between the self and man’s feeling of alienation from society. However, this is a convenient excuse for not properly providing a solution to the inconsistencies in Emerson’s theory of self-reliance and the hypocritical manner in which he asserts that man go about achieving self-reliance.

Emerson helped shape a national identity in America and provide inspiration for a nation that was searching for ways to break free from the British ideologies of the past. In retrospect, Emerson appears contradictory and hypocritical in his essay Self-reliance, as he combines religion, individualism, power theory, elitism and collectivism all together to attempt to form a national identity. What emerges is a very provocative essay with excellent assertions on self-reliance but a poor guide for creating a collective national identity and foundation for governmental philosophy.

Emerson walked a fine line in his writing because, according to Emerson, creating a strong sense of self was the foundation of a great society. This dichotomy presents clear inconsistencies but Emerson could find no way to present his theories of the self and the universal mind needed to create a strong nation. Michael Lopez states that Emerson crossed over the line of self-reliance into what is known as being a “theorist of power”. The contradictions expose the incompatibility in his personal philosophy, which included religious and naturalistic elements, verses the transcendentalist ideology that he adopted. For example, Power is in nature the essential measure of right. Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul.

Hence, according to Emerson, might means right. However, how can the mighty exert their self-reliance and achieve a collective good when all men are self-relying souls and asserting their animalistic right to rule the jungle of society? Emerson writes:

And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

Survival of the fittest is not conducive to the religious tenants set up by Emerson in much of Self-reliance. The contradiction between survival of the fittest and the espoused religious tenants of Emerson are many. “When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn.” However, in religion, with concepts such as “faith” and “trust in God”, there is no room for self-reliance or in Emerson’s glorifying of the power of man. Emerson states:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.

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