The high school English class that I teach has been learning about the transcendentalist movement. Today, we will read excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” This essay really speaks to me, and so I have included some excepts from the essay below. When I first read this essay, I was not yet out of the closet, and it did not mean as much to me then as it does now. Emerson may actually be speaking more directly to the GLBT community than we realize. There is some evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson was bisexual. Emerson may have had erotic thoughts about at least one man. During his early years at Harvard, he said he was “strangely attracted” to a young man named Martin Gay, about whom he wrote sexual poetry. Nathaniel Hawthorne was also purportedly one of his infatuations.
Emerson is the seminal intellectual, philosophical voice of the nineteenth century in America. Although readers today may find his thought slightly facile, even unrealistic–times do change–his influence among his contemporaries and those who followed immediately after him was enormous. Emerson was the spokesman for the American Transcendentalists, a group of New England romantic writers, which included Thoreau, who believed that intuition was the means to truth, that god is revealed through intuition to each individual. They celebrated the independent individual and strongly supported democracy. The essay “Self-Reliance,” from which an excerpt is presented here, is the clearest, most memorable example of Emerson’s philosophy of individualism, an idea that is deeply embedded in American culture. His variety of individualism grows of the self’s intuitive connection with the Over-Soul and is not simply a matter of self-centered assertion or immature narcissism
Consider what Emerson says about the importance of non-conformity and independent beliefs and contrast this with the prevailing attitude in contemporary America. With so much discussion of bullying in schools, this essay should be, and in most textbooks is, essential reading. It teaches us that we should be ourselves, not the conforming sheep that bullies try to push us into. Emerson is telling us to trust ourselves, because it is us alone that can overcome the bullies of the world. With the rate of GLBT youth suicides and bullycide going on in American schools, we should realize that it will get better and that we should be proud to be ourselves.
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preëstablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.
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. 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….
These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend’s parlour. If this aversation had its origin in contempt and resistance like his own, he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is the discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of the senate and the college. It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. Their rage is decorous and prudent, for they are timid as being very vulnerable themselves. But when to their feminine rage the indignation of the people is added, when the ignorant and the poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment….
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. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.–‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’–Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza;–read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.
Let a man then know his worth, and keep things under his feet. Let him not peep or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of a charity-boy, a bastard, or an interloper, in the world which exists for him. But the man in the street, finding no worth in himself which corresponds to the force which built a tower or sculptured a marble god, feels poor when he looks on these. To him a palace, a statue, or a costly book have an alien and forbidding air, much like a gay equipage, and seem to say like that, ‘Who are you, Sir?’ Yet they all are his, suitors for his notice, petitioners to his faculties that they will come out and take possession. The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command me, but I am to settle its claims to praise. That popular fable of the sot who was picked up dead drunk in the street, carried to the duke’s house, washed and dressed and laid in the duke’s bed, and, on his waking, treated with all obsequious ceremony like the duke, and assured that he had been insane, owes its popularity to the fact, that it symbolizes so well the state of man, who is in the world a sort of sot, but now and then wakes up, exercises his reason, and finds himself a true prince….
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.
Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” teaches us to trust ourselves. By ourselves, we have unique voices and opinions, which society shuts down as soon as we confront other people and the group. Society’s primary concern is creating wealth and status, while the individual’s concern is self-expression and fulfillment. We want to take life slow, savor every moment, express ourselves, and explore many talents and skills. Society wants us to be big shots, put all our education towards one career, weed out our competitors to become successful, and make more money than we could ever need. But since society’s goal’s are so ingrained inside us, we must learn to trust our own instincts as to what society tells us.
Emerson states that in solitude, individuals have voices, “which grow faint and inaudible as we enter the world.” Some of these thoughts and opinions that people come up with in solitude might cause fear when presented to society. Since society is such a delicate structure based on fear of chaos, any novel voice will make the person who spoke it become “the other.” Fear of alienation prevents voices from leaving solitude into the realm of society.
Emerson states that individuals who work hard and pursue fulfillment should not be proud of the possessions they acquired. He says, “a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, ashamed of what he has, out of respect for his own being,” meaning that acquiring property is just an accident. If you trust yourself and work towards the proper development of yourself by discovery of your innermost talents, then you should not accept society’s false reward of property. An ordinary person doing his best work is just as valuable as the “great” lives of kings and royalty. The greatest reward is knowing that you have found your own unique self, and fully trust it.
Fulfillment verses success, self expression verses conformity, and solitude verses the group are important factors to distinguish. Emerson in “Self-Reliance” is not advocating staying in solitude, because humans are social beings. Rather he wants us to discover ourselves away from society, and then confront society as our fulfilled and cultivated selfs. In reality, the wealth power structure of society is just a response to fear of our chaotic world, and if we just embrace this chaos, we might be more fulfilled, happy people. Trust yourself. Learn to let go.