Self-Reliance: Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendental Essay

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maggie Anderson
Ralph Waldo Emerson's most famous work, 'Self-Reliance', helped solidify the Transcendentalist principles of individualism, nonconformity, and intuition. Explore 'Self-Reliance', and four areas Emerson believed to need self-reliant individuals. Updated: 08/25/2021

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance

Emerson was a leading transcendentalist
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist and poet, was a central figure in the transcendental movement of the mid-19th century. Published in 1841, his essay 'Self-Reliance' introduced the core ideas of transcendentalism to the American public. In many ways, 'Self-Reliance' was a call to arms, inviting Americans to use their personal strengths and talents to foster change. In this lesson, we'll analyze Emerson's essay 'Self-Reliance' for characteristics of transcendental ideas, including individualism, nonconformity, and intuition.

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Review of Transcendentalism

In 1836, a small group of New England writers and intellectuals founded a literary and philosophical movement known as transcendentalism. The group rejected organized religion; they believed one should develop a personal, intuitive relationship with god and nature. By contemplating nature, one could transcend the physical world and unite with the 'Over-Soul,' the true energy of the universe. Along with Emerson, transcendentalism influenced the work of writers Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson.

The transcendentalists championed individualism, which is the practice of independence in thought and action based on the premise that individual character and personality are of the utmost importance. Accordingly, individuals are free to pursue their goals and private desires without taking into consideration the interests of society. This idea greatly shaped America's identity.

From the lone cowboy who seeks vengeance without any regard for the long arm of the law, to someone like Lady Gaga, who pursues success while staying true to her unique creativity and personal style, Emerson believed that diversity enriched society. He encouraged American artists to develop distinctive styles rather than looking to the European past masters of literature, art, and architecture.

Within 'Self-Reliance,' Emerson urged readers to 'trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.' Emerson also suggested children as models of authentic behavior in 'Self-Reliance.' While man was 'clapped into jail by his consciousness,' children were still free with themselves, always genuine and natural. Children were too young to be hesitant. In contrast, adults often became wary of following their true nature.

Other notable transcendentalist writers
Transcendentalist Writers

Emerson encouraged readers of 'Self-Reliance' to resist conforming to societal expectations. He wrote, 'Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.' Emerson believed that man needed to act independently, regardless of if his impulses were deemed good or bad. In fact, he believed it was better to live a true life in obscurity than to be praised for abiding society's standards.

To be clear, Emerson's intent was not for people to become hermits, fenced off from their community with their unique ideas kept in solitude. Unlike his contemporary, Emily Dickinson, who was known for her reclusive tendencies, Emerson argued that independent energy and creativity were essential contributions to society. The transcendentalists stressed the importance of thinking for one's self rather than timidly accepting the common opinion.

Emerson believed that truth was found within, and that this internal truth transcended the knowledge gained from one's senses. In 'Self-Reliance,' he stressed the importance of intuition, which is the ability to understand something from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning.

'Self-Reliance' argued that intuition is the 'the essence of genius, of virtue, of life.' The transcendentalists believed that the universe was guided by an all-encompassing and vital energy called the 'Over-Soul.' When man felt the spark of intuition, he tapped into this 'Over-Soul.' His sudden knowledge had been sent straight from the source. Intuition was the only direct knowledge, according to Emerson. All other knowledge was secondhand.

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