Emerson’s Self-Reliance: Wisdom or Ignorance?

This post is by blogonwithnichelle.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is praised for his acknowledgment of the importance of the self in his book titled Self-Reliance. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Emerson grew up to become deeply rooted in the Transcendentalist movement that advocated the act of freewill, intuition, and awareness of nature as being the primary milestones by which a person can enter into a place of much deeper spirituality (American National Biography). He argues that self-reliance and connectivity with nature are the precursors of one’s ability to progress. Emerson draws upon this theory of thought especially within his more popular book Self-Reliance, which, in the title alone, emphasizes the importance of being self-involved and unemotional to the thoughts or judgements of those around us. However, to what extent is his writing based upon wisdom or self-indulgence?

In his argument to defend himself from being categorized as selfish or arrogant, he explains why he does not willingly concord with all people, but instead only with those he deems noble. In judging the nobility of other people, however, he is drawing upon what acts or character traits he defines to be noble. He does, to some extent, address the definition of nobility as being one that is subject to change from one person to the next. However, on the other hand, he dismisses altogether the idea that something truthful for one person may not necessarily be the truth that stands for all people. He states, “I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly.” However, he arrogantly contradicts himself by only addressing the idea of there being one truth while acknowledging that someone can also truthfully believe something to be noble, but nobility itself, as he depicts, is very much a self-constructed phenomenon, leaving it impossible for one to be truthful about his nobility if it does not follow the same fundamentals by which Emerson bases his definition of nobility on. By such dismissal of logic, consequentially his arrogance shines through and arguably in itself displays the lack of truthfulness he has for himself and for his reasoning behind his intentions to put thyself above all others.

The idea of self-reliance and self-interest, as depicted in Emerson’s writing, strips us down to our very core, leaving behind any shape of morality and humanity that makes us human. We are a species greatly known for our relations and dependence on each other, and yet, Emerson does not address this. Where would the United States, for example, be today if not for the comradery and compromise the people of this nation have given to be able to secure the liberties of the people? He never once mentions the origination of the basic rights of people, and therefore dismisses the fact that they were ingrained and secured by the coming together and sacrifice of people. Should people behave in such a way as Emerson promotes, the world would turn into utter chaos, as people would have no reason to help another person so as long as it did not help and fulfill himself first. It is under this understanding of Emerson’s Self-Reliance, that I cannot condone it for being a work of wisdom, but instead, a work used to justify one’s ability and assumed freedom to be self-absorbed and self-empowering at the expense of all else.

I have provided in a link below an article written by New York Time’s Benjamin Anastas that further in depth outlines Emerson’s written works, as well as emphasizing, in particular, the issues that surround his piece, Self-Reliance.



Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Stanley Appelbaum. Self-reliance, and Other Essays. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. Print.

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4 Responses to Emerson’s Self-Reliance: Wisdom or Ignorance?

  1. Rebecca Smith says:

    I enjoyed reading your piece on Emerson particularly because your interpretation of the fundamental idea of “self-reliance” is much different than my own. Your argument was well put, and forced me to see the idea from another angle, however, I still find myself holding true to what I originally saw in the work. What I found is that the idea of “self-reliance” isn’t necessarily focused on building a nation of people who seek to serve only themselves, but instead build one in which people stop needing to depend on others when they fail. Its less of a “don’t help one another” and more of a “don’t expect help every time you fall short” type of an attitude that I felt Emerson was discussing.

  2. Rebecca, I definitely see where you are coming from, as I like your point about not expecting everyone to be there to catch you when you fall. Emerson discusses the idea that happiness is not something that is dictated by others; it is governed by the inner-self of a person, and therefore is the choice of that single individual of whether or not they choose to be happy. Nonetheless, I do feel as though most of his writing is very exaggerated, as I believe it over-emphasizes the role an individual plays in society as well as how much control an individual actually has over his or her future. People are capable of changing their situation, yes, but society can too.

    Thanks for your post!

  3. mschonbe says:

    I was intrigued reading your critical view of Emerson’s self-reliance. I do agree with you in some regard that Emerson’s logic for how he defined nobility was a bit spotty. I do think that everyone has a broad definition of nobility and these definitions are always relative. It is ironic that he preaches individualism and defining things for yourself but then proceeds to give his definition and sees it as the truth. I think that in some ways he does push his ideas onto other people which is contradictory since he says the answers to everything lies within. It seems he is obviously biased to the superiority of his own thinking. It could be argued that in every argument there is a persuasive element where the writer tries to sway the reader into seeing things from their perspective. This is also true and nuanced in these individualistic writings where Emerson urges the individual to think for themselves but then gives his opinion on what he urges the reader to think. This is what occurred in this section on nobility. This is why it is important to see these writings in the critical way that you did.

  4. prestonmarshall says:

    You’re hitting the nail on the head with the arrogance tidbit. There’s even rumors of him going to the grocery store during his time of “enlightenment” in an old cabin. Very hypocritical. Well put.

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