Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay entitled “Self-Reliance” is one that praises the notions of non-conformity, stating that only the brave ones have the power to say no to the hypnotic influence of the masses. When a man believes in himself, knows what he must do and gives his voice enough potency to be heard, he has the power to live a rich and fulfilling life, simultaneously revealing spiritual and philosophical essence of life itself.
As one of the major philosophers of the movement referred to as Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson delves deep into the notion of the human self, the higher realms of spiritual existence, in a lyrical manner where his essays abound with poetical essence of a true genius, who puts value on simplicity and human identity not as a part of the humanity as a whole, but rather as an individual whose opinions and beliefs not infrequently clash with those around him. His essay, entitled “Self-Reliance” deals with the question non-conformism in the sense that it equates it bravery. It takes a brave man to live according to his own rules and to stay true to himself, without conforming to the rules of society, which not only stifles creativity and free expression, but endeavors to eradicate it, perceiving it as a threat.
The idea that a person should think for himself, something that Emerson could not emphasize enough, because that is the true path to enlightenment and a fulfilling life, is something that the common man of today is not familiar with. So many people just rush through their lives, creating a plan of finishing school, getting a job, getting married, having children, and all of this ending up in an enchanted cycle of working, sleeping and eating. Thus, they are not even tempted to try and get out of the rut they are stuck in, but simply accept their fate as inevitable and accept to be spoon-fed with other people’s ideas. That is why it is all too easy for them to simply turn on their television sets and soak up the information it has to offer. They do not question the validity of the information they are receiving, they are accepting it as real and as such, it is enough. The world of today appears to be a bland version of George Orwell’s 1984 where free thought is something punishable by law and everyone is being overseen by the figure of Big Brother. Those people were forced into a state of psychological inactivity, while the people we are surrounded with have made this choice for themselves.
Emerson stated that a true man is a non-conformist, he is fighting the society which is in a conspiracy against the free thoughts of individuals. Nowadays, people are granted a greater freedom when it comes to their rights and privileges, and expressing their opinions. The press as well as the media has all the privileges of free speech, something that was not granted everyone in Emerson’s age. His works, as well as that of his philosophical contemporaries such as Thoreau, who wrote Civil Disobedience, ran against a great tumult and disapproval by those who opposed their ideas of pacifism and human spirituality. Thus, it took a brave soul to openly express these ideas which were in stark contrast to that of the governing classes, and not only express them verbally, but also in print.
Emerson urged for open speech, that which comes from the heart, a speech of infancy, because infancy conforms to nobody, it merely speaks of its own needs and desires. He scorned the man he saw everyone around him become: “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am’” (Emerson). Every man should speak his own mind, should feel free to do so. However, this requires strength and bravery, because it is all too easy to simply conform, to subdue one’s opinions and beliefs and substitute them with someone else’s. It is all too easy to turn a blind eye to all of this. That is why Emerson equals bravery with non-conformism, in the sense that by fighting to be different, to dare to have individual and personal beliefs and opinions, a person proves himself worthy of being referred to as a social rebel, and as such unique and a true individual.
In addition, for a person to be brave enough to speak his mind, knowing that it will create displeasure of the society, he must first trust himself, as Emerson claims, to accept his unconventional position in the world, to acknowledge and comprehend that he is not like everybody else, that is granted the vision of a non-conformist. True men accept their life path no matter how inconvenient, unappealing and dangerous it is, and only by having faith in themselves, in their own beliefs, can they make a difference. The world has always been in possession of such brave souls, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of others, who were courageous enough to fight the system of oppression and unfair treatment. They lived for the moment, took immediate action, knowing that only acting in the present can make a positive change in the future.
So many people get lost in everyday problems, they get tangled in a spider web of predicaments, seeing no way out of them. Emerson believed that the key to a rich and fulfilling life lies in the individual himself. He creates his own destiny and if he possesses bravery, strength and is willing to go against the current of conformity, he will make himself heard. Naturally, like all great thinkers, he will be misunderstood, but as Emerson himself knew all too well, most people with revolutionary ideas were expressing them well before the ears of their contemporaries were ready to hear them. Thus, they were deemed madmen and eccentrics, and their ideas were mostly dismissed as ramblings of an unstable mind.
Emerson’s idea of self-reliance is one not only connected with the economic aspect of it, but also the social one. Consequently, it is not only about a man’s ability to pay his bills and provide for his family, but rather it is a question of a man’s philosophical and spiritual self, and how it is being expressed. A brave man is a man who relies on himself and on his own capabilities on the road to personal success. He does not let other things overtake him; the misunderstandings of his ideas are not his concern. His efforts are aimed at the vocalization of these ideas on his path to spiritual awakening. A man must be himself, and himself alone, to be spiritually free, to allow a free flow of thought, without any restraint from the world around him.
Self-reliance is a trait for a true hero, who never imitates, but rather makes himself the original, who uses Fortune to his advantage and shapes it. Logically, he should rely only on himself on a path to greatness. Independence of thought leads to philosophical ideals, where one dwells in solitude, refusing the company of his peers, valuing his time alone more than any companionship. Some of the greatest thinkers came up with their ground-breaking ideas in times of solitude, concealed from the prying eye of the public. In silence, surrounded by nature, they dwell inside their own minds, finding more pleasure in a brook, river, forest and birds, than in the busy streets of urban life.
Consequently, Emerson urges for a complete self-sufficiency. The truly important answers a person has can never come from the outside world. They can only come from the person himself, from deep within. That is why the Transcendentalists enjoyed long periods of time by themselves, without the slightest need for human society, in an effort to delve deep into their own spiritual and philosophical self, and find their life’s meaning. Thus, the meaning of self-reliance in its very essence: the truth can come only from the inside, never from the outside. And true heroes are aware of this fact.
In the end, Emerson’s essay sums up the Transcendentalist perspective ideally. It is an elevated compound of ideas about self-reliance, bravery and non-conformism. He claims that if a man possesses a mixture of these three, he possesses enough power to change the world. Society will always be against something new, something different, but man must not become discouraged. He should look deep within himself, for there is where the truth about life and human existence comes.
Emerson, R. W. Self-Reliance. Retrieved from http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm