This article is about the essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. For other uses, see Self-reliance.
"Self-Reliance" is an 1841 essay written by American transcendentalist philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. It contains the most thorough statement of one of Emerson's recurrent themes: the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency, and follow their own instincts and ideas. It is the source of one of Emerson's most famous quotations: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." This essay is an analysis into the nature of the “aboriginal self on which a universal reliance may be grounded.”
The first hint of the philosophy that would become "Self-Reliance" was presented by Ralph Waldo Emerson as part of a sermon in September 1830 a month after his first marriage. His wife Ellen was sick with tuberculosis and, as Emerson's biographer Robert D. Richardson wrote, "Immortality had never been stronger or more desperately needed!"
From 1836 into 1837, Emerson presented a series of lectures on the philosophy of history at Boston's Masonic Temple. These lectures were never published separately, but many of his thoughts in these were later used in "Self-Reliance" and several other essays. Later lectures by Emerson led to public censure of his radical views, the staunch defense of individualism in "Self-Reliance" being a possible reaction to that censure.
"Self-Reliance" was first published in his 1841 collection, Essays: First Series. Emerson helped start the beginning of the Transcendentalist movement in America. "Self-Reliance" is one of Emerson’s most famous essays. Emerson wrote on “individualism, personal responsibility, and nonconformity.”
The Transcendentalist movement flourished in New England, and proposed a revolutionarily new philosophy of life. This new philosophy drew upon old ideas of Romanticism, Unitarianism, and German Idealism. Some of these ideas pertained closely to the values of America at the time. These values included nature, individualism, and reform, and can be noted in Emerson's essay.
- Individual authority: Emerson mentions that citizens control the government so they have control. He also mentions how “nothing has authority over the self.” He says, “History cannot bring enlightenment; only individual searching can.” He believes that truth is inside a person and this is authority, not institutions like religion.
- Nonconformity: Emerson states, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." He counsels his readers to do what they think is right no matter what others think.
- Solitude and the community: Emerson wrote how the community is a distraction to self-growth, by friendly visits, and family needs. He advocates more time being spent reflecting on one’s self. This can also happen in the community by a strong self-confidence. This would help the counseled to not sway from his beliefs in groups of people.
- Spirituality: Truth is within one’s self. Emerson posits that reliance upon institutionalized religion hinders the ability to grow mentally as an individual.
Herman Melville's Moby-Dick has been read as a critique of Emerson's philosophy of self-reliance, embodied particularly in the life and death of Ahab. Melville's critique of self-reliance as a way of life is seen to lie in its destructive potential, especially when taken to extremes. Richard Chase writes that for Melville, 'Death–spiritual, emotional, physical–is the price of self-reliance when it is pushed to the point of solipsism, where the world has no existence apart from the all-sufficient self.'In that regard, Chase sees Melville's art as antithetical to that of Emerson's thought, in that Melville '[points] up the dangers of an exaggerated self-regard, rather than, as [...] Emerson loved to do, [suggested] the vital possibilities of the self.'Newton Arvin further suggests that self-reliance was, for Melville, really the '[masquerade in kingly weeds of] a wild egoism, anarchic, irresponsible, and destructive.'
In popular culture
Emerson's quote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," is a running joke in the 1998 film Next Stop Wonderland. A single woman (portrayed by Hope Davis), who is familiar with the Emerson quote, goes on dates with several men, each of whom tries to impress her by referencing the line, but misquotes it and misattributes it to W.C. Fields, Karl Marx, or Cicero. The woman finally meets a man (portrayed by Alan Gelfant) who correctly attributes the quote to Emerson.
Early in his career the writer Isaac Asimov co-authored the textbook Biochemistry and Human Metabolism. While reviewing the galley proofs of each author's contribution, he and his two colleagues would frequently encounter differences in matters such as the spelling, capitalization and hyphenation of technical words and terms. Rather than undergo the laborious task of harmonizing all these trivial variations, hearkening to the "foolish consistency" statement they would all call out "Emerson" when one of these was encountered and pass directly on to the next item.
It is also quoted in the Python Style guide for the Python programming language.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo Selected Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin American Library, 1982) ISBN 0140390138. Edited with an introduction by Larzer Ziff. pp. 175-203.
- Porte, Joel and Saundra Morris (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) ISBN 052149611X. See especially pp. 13-30 and pp. 106-111.
- ^Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) Bartleby.com, Inc., 1841.
- ^Baldwin, Neil (2005). The American Revelation. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 61–78.
- ^ abRichardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 99. ISBN 0-520-08808-5.
- ^McAleer, John. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984: 105. ISBN 0-316-55341-7.
- ^Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 257. ISBN 0-520-08808-5
- ^Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995: 300. ISBN 0-520-08808-5.
- ^Myerson, Joel (2000). Transcendentalism: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 318–339.
- ^ abcdeHacht, Anne, ed. (2007). "Major Works" Literary Themes for Students: The American Dream. Detroit: Gale. pp. 453–466. Retrieved November 25, 2014.
- ^ abChase, Richard, ed. (1962). "Melville and Moby-Dick". Melville: a Collection of Critical Essays. Spectrum. pp. 56–61.
- ^Melville, Herman (1981). Arvin, Newton, ed. Moby-Dick. Bantam. pp. 549–558. ISBN 0-553-21311-3.
- ^O'Sullivan, Michael (August 28, 1998). "'Next Stop Wonderland'". The Washington Post.
- ^Asimov, Isaac. It's Been a Good Life. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2002: 118. ISBN 1-57392-968-9.
- ^Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Mysteries. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968: 54. ISBN 0-385-09063-3.
- ^"PEP 0008 -- Style Guide for Python Code: A Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds". Python.org. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
In general, I think it’s wise to be self-critical. But I also believe that—in the deepest sense—we must trust our instincts and have the courage to put our ideas out into the world. Whenever I need a reminder about how to do this, I turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay on self reliance.
“Self-Reliance,” considered Emerson’s most influential piece, works its magic much like an inspiring song that can get you through the last stretch of a grueling run. His central point is that we should not ignore those inner whispers, which may be barely audible under the din of outside influences and self-doubt. They may contain sparks of genius. After all, the world’s greatest thinkers and leaders had the courage to hear themselves and to follow their convictions, without concerning themselves overly about tradition and what others might think. They taught themselves to ignore the din and doubt, and their ideas resonated with the world because they reflected a truth that others had sensed privately as well.
“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts,” Emerson writes. “They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” In every book or painting or film that moves us, we respond because they speak to a truth we recognize—if only subconsciously.
Easy for Emerson to say, we might think. He’s a genius himself. But remember, at the time he wrote his essay, he wasn’t yet considered a master of American literature. He was just a guy. His ideas hadn’t stood the test of time. Yet he understood the importance of holding convictions about your personal potential.
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all … That is genius,” he writes. “Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost.”
Still, it can be hard to feel sure of ourselves—particularly as our personal failures accumulate. And yet we must be brave enough to follow through on our ideas.
Emerson’s essay helped push me to pursue my boldest creative goal. In 2014, I wanted to write a book of literary science fiction, called Too Long Don’t Read (TLDR). My idea was to pen a satirical work about text and context in a universal culture run by a tech company. It would be a cross between George Orwell’s 1984 and Don DeLillo’s WhiteNoise—but shorter, futuristic, and based on my work on Google’s legal document review team.
Basically, it was an insanely audacious goal.
But hell, I needed to trust myself. Yes, Google is an adored tech company. Sure, I’m no Orwell. But I felt the book needed to be written. Emerson helped me do it.
I printed out the essay and annotated it, carried it around with me, stained it with wine, and wore it out. Then I printed another copy and went back to underlining. I bookmarked the digital version of the essay on my computers at work and at home. I read and reread it. As I did, I became ever more certain that however ridiculous and daunting my goal might seem, the first step to accomplishing it was believing that it was worthwhile. Emboldened by Emerson, I dared to “abide by [my] spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility.”
The themes of the novella—the blurring line between fact and fiction, how to process fake information on a web without context, and whether technology should be driving decisions—are now the stuff of daily headlines. But that wasn’t as clear when I started writing it, or when I blogged the story as a serial after countless publishers rejected it.
I wrote the book—despite my many doubts, and those of others—because I was heeding Emerson’s warning that I’d be scooped if I held off. As he writes, “Else, tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”
Each person has reason to believe in their own ideas, he explains, because each of us is unique. We each occupy a singular point in space and time, and our experiences can’t quite be replicated by anyone else.
Emerson thought that “great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this.” They show why we must trust ourselves and “learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [the] mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.”
Many others have also celebrated Emerson as offering high-minded self-help for literary types. Writing for The New Yorkerin 2015, Dan Chiasson explains, “Emerson’s essays are like wonder handbooks … you can use [them] to become enchanted; many dejected secular people have gone to them regularly to see the world in renewed and refreshed terms of beauty. They outfit you for a walk in the woods or an ordinary morning.”
But Emerson’s essays don’t just help you exist in the world. They urge you to make things, listen to the whispers, for the sake of creativity itself. “Self-Reliance” tells us that the process of creating is its own reward. We can only feel relieved and happy in life, he says, when we pour our hearts into our work and do our best. Anything less will gives us no peace. And so the essay frees us to speak our minds—and see what connects.
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