Self-Reliance Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson's face on a U.S. Postage Stamp from the 1940 "Famous Americans" Series. He was one of five authors to receive this honor; the others were Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Louisa May Alcott, and Mark Twain.

Biographical Information

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston in 1803.
  • He descended from an unbroken line of ministers that stretched back to 1637.
  • He graduated from Harvard in 1821 and worked as a minister until he quit in 1832. He began giving lectures in 1833.
  • Three of his siblings died in childhood, his father died of stomach cancer when Ralph was 17, and his first wife Ellen died of tuberculosis in 1831.
  • Self-Reliance was published in 1841 in a collection called Essays: First Series.
  • Emerson was a leader of the Transcendentalist movement.

"Self-Reliance" & Transcendentalism

"A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made, by the reception of beautiful sentiments." (Divinity School Address, 1838)

Self-Reliance is very quotable, Emerson loves truisms and maxims- "beautiful sentiments."

"In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

Today, Emerson's writings are a popular source of "inspirational quotes" that people share on the internet.
All sorts of people enjoy them.

Emerson in Context: Transcendentalism

  • Emerson is primarily remembered as a key figure in the development of transcendentalism.
  • What is transcendentalism, and how does it relate to self-reliance?


  • Transcendentalists access truth through intuition, they reject both faith and empiricism.
  • Self-Reliance is making an argument, but it is conspicuously devoid of the things people usually use to make arguments: he gives no evidence and makes no appeals to authority ("The Bible tells me so"). There isn't even much of a logical progression to the essay, it's more of a series of comments.
  • Truisms are self-evident "beautiful sentiments" that are either believed or disbelieved intuitively.


  • Society restricts the individual and hinders the search for truth, which lies within.
  • "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 [...] Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist."

Pantheism & the Goodness of Nature

  • Transcendentalists escape the artificial confines of society by spending time alone in nature.
  • Divine truth is not learned from the church or from sacred texts, man is born with truth inside of him and all around him.

Emerson and "The Age of Reform"

  • Emerson was associated with the abolitionist movement and other liberal causes, but was less interested in political issues than most of his peers.
  • He subscribed to the Great Man theory of history, and seemed to admire strength and determination for their own sake.
  • The only mention of abolitionism in Self-Reliance is a dismissive one: "Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. [...] If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, 'Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.' Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love."

Discussion Questions

1. “The ‘word made flesh’ for Emerson is best exemplified in the self-made American hero, the youthful entrepreneur who creates himself as he goes along: ‘A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions […] and always, like a cat, falls on his feet” (Joswick 522).

How do Emerson’s ideas about “self-reliance” interact with archetypes in American literature? Consider characters that predate the essay (who is more deserving of the title “self-made man” than Catalina de Erauso?) but also later ones (Jay Gatsby, for example). What in American history or culture accounts for the literary prevalence of the self-reliant “rags to riches” hero who “creates himself as he goes along”?

2. Are Emerson’s ideas actually useful to people outside of his narrow environment? He is convinced that society is holding him back in some way, but he seems unaware that his intellectual achievements are only possible because of his privileged status in society. Who can afford to eschew conformity in 1841, or today?

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.