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Self Reliance

Self Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson (born in 1803 and died in 1882) was an intellectual born in the US and lived in New England. He is remembered best as one of the founders of Transcendentalism, which gained popularity in the 19th century. Transcendentalism was the philosopher’s reaction to political, ideological, and social movements during Emerson’s era. The philosopher believed that these movements stifled the freedom of spirit, imagination, and intellect. He emphasized nature as a part of humanity and through which people could discover the meaning of life. One of Emerson’s famous essays is ‘Self Reliance,’ where he lays out a foundation for transcendentalist ideas and the values that individualism holds (Emerson, 2012), thus portraying its relevance in the 21st century.

The theme of the author/work

Many young people in the 1830s had reached a point in their lives where they felt that religion had become impersonal and cold. The faith they had adopted from the Puritan ancestors lacked emotion. It also failed at fostering a connectedness to the Higher Being, which the youth sought after in the religion. To the youth, the church had stopped focusing on heaven and was more concerned with worldly matters, which under the observations, measurements, and probing of science, appeared to offer less assurance of the presence of the divine in the world (Friedman, 2012).

By taking guidance from European thinking and Greek philosophy, some intellectuals from New England came up with the notion that women and men did not need churches for them to connect with the divine being (Friedman, 2012). This group of thinkers stated that nature, though lacking in spiritual meaning, was a realm of symbols that all pointed toward a collection of religious truths. The writers and thinkers asserted that people could transcend the material world and connect with divinity. At the same time, understand the symbols through the simple acceptance of one’s intuitions about the experience, nature, and God. The fact that the insights flashed in one’s mind was proof enough that no external verification of such assertions was necessary. These beliefs required that one hold a high level of confidence in self and hence, the basis of the “Self Reliance” essay by Emerson.

The essay by Emerson commences by defining the term ‘genius’ as being able to “believe your thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men” (2012). Emerson added that Milton, Plato, and Moses possessed this quality and hence, were able to disregard tradition and proceed to speak their thoughts. However, most people tend to ignore these thoughts and only recognize the same much later in the acknowledged genius’ works. Emerson points out that every individual comes to a place of realization that ‘imitation is suicide.’ A person’s power of creativity and perception are the most critical gifts, and they can only find happiness by putting their mind and heart into the present work. Great people accepted the position they held at their age and had faith that they would, through their ability, make it in life. Animals and children also have the same innate belief and the power of certitude (Emerson, 2012).

Emerson, besides exploring this point of the uniqueness of an individual, also asserted that people should follow their will and refrain from following expectations from society. The philosopher in the essay draws on Milton and Plato’s works in arguing for individualism. Further, Emerson posits that self  reliance effects include altering the American people’s religious practices, staying at home and developing their culture; and focusing not on societal progress but rather on individual achievement (Whelan, 2012).

In the current day and age that we live in, and more so with the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, these ideas that Emerson put forth are a reality than they have ever been. Churches across the globe have shut down, and persons have been forcibly called upon to stay at home and develop new cultures (such as family religious and devotional practices; small churches within the families). The pandemic has forced people to focus more on their progress as the world economic systems continue to fail. Persons across the globe are each looking into how they can better their today, knowing that tomorrow is not a given. It is no longer about society but about individual survival.

The significant characteristics of the period that is evident in the work

Self-Reliance was published at a time when rationalism was an important discussion topic and was influenced primarily by the philosophies and romanticism of Plato and Kant. Emerson and other transcendentalists asserted that individuals should be left to be reliant on self and the significance of the interactions between nature and individuals. Emerson uses Napoleon Bonaparte and Aristotle as examples to cement his theories of self-reliance (O’Dwyer, 2012). According to Liang (2013), the earliest conception of Emerson’s work came soon after the demise of his wife, and this occurrence greatly influenced his perceptions of life and how one ought to live. “Self-Reliance” is an expression of optimism and hope in a time of his despair.

Major narrative devices the author uses to communicate his or her message

The two primary narrative devices used in the essay are a stream of consciousness and metaphors. Stream of consciousness is a literary style and narrative device where the narrative is given within the consciousness of the first-person narrator. The narrator places the reader in the former’s perceptions and thoughts. Two examples from the essay are:

  • “Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession….”
  • “”Man is his own star; and the soul that can Render an honest and a perfect man, Commands all light, all influence, all fate; Nothing to him falls early or too late. Our acts our angels are, or good or ill, Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.”…”

The central theme in the essay is that people should rely on and trust their instincts and judgments rather than on traditions set by society or what others prescribe as the way to live. Examples of metaphors that relay this message from the essay are:

  • There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less.
  • “Society is a wave. The wave move onward, but the water of which it is composed does not.”


The essay “Self-Reliance” is persuasive and promotes Transcendentalism. Emerson states that self-reliance on a grand scale would bring about a revolution. He applies this idea to art, education, and religion. Emerson also adds that society never advances; instead, it recedes and gains on opposite sides and at equal speeds. This assertion is best exemplified in the 21st century and more so in the world today. World societies were in the race to advancement with the emergence of superpower economies and declining of other economies. However, once COVID-19 came into the scene, it became apparent that societies are not as advanced as they were thought to be; the developed and developing countries are each struggling with the same pandemic. No society appears to be ahead or behind another as all economies have come to a standstill. Each country, each individual, has turned to the self for answers to the challenge. Emerson’s essay could have very well been written in the year 2020.


Emerson, R. W. (2012). Self-reliance and other essays. Courier Corporation.

Friedman, R. L. (2012). Religious self-reliance. the pluralist7(1), 27-53.

Liang, H. (2013). An Eye for an” I”-An Insight into Emerson’s Thought of Self-reliance. Journal of Language Teaching and Research4(6), 1351.

O’Dwyer, K. (2012). Emerson’s Argument for Self-reliance as a Significant Factor in a Flourishing Life. Journal of Philosophy of Life2(1), 102-110.

Whelan, R. (Ed.). (2012). Self-reliance: The wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson as inspiration for daily living. Harmony.


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Essay 3: American Renaissance/Romantic Period Instructions

Choose ONE of the following topics and write a polished essay of at least 1,200 words (4-5 double spaced typed pages).  The essay requires not less than 3 secondary sources.

Self Reliance

Self Reliance

Before writing your essay, reread your notes and assigned textbook reading(s) just to refresh your memory.  Also, it might be useful to reread a composition textbook to remind yourself of the guidelines on how to write a clearly-defined thesis statement, well-developed paragraph(s), and an essay using the MLA or APA or Turabian parenthetical method of documentation for your quotations and any secondary sources you cite. To let your instructor know which style of documentation you are using, write MLA, APA, or Turabian in the title of your essay as follows: Title – Citation style (e.g., “Christians and the Study of American Literature – APA”).

NOTE: To receive an excellent grade, a student must demonstrate a reasonable competence in organizing an essay on a set topic; developing ideas logically and systematically; supporting these ideas with the necessary evidence, quotations or examples; organizing a paragraph; documenting essays (using MLA, APA, or Turabian) style; spelling the commoner words of the English language correctly; punctuating correctly; and writing grammatical sentences, avoiding such common mistakes as comma splices, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, faulty agreements, faulty references, shifts in person, number, or tense.

  1. Choose any ONE of the works/authors of the American Renaissance or Romantic Period studied in this course and write a literary analysis of the chosen work. The focus of the essay should be three-fold: to discuss the theme of the author/work, the major characteristics of the period that are evident in the work, and major narrative devices the author uses to communicate his or her message. Your essay must have a clearly-defined thesis statement, well-developed paragraph(s), and fitting conclusion.

Your outline is due by 11:59pm (ET) Monday of module/week 6.

Your essay is due by 11:59pm (ET) Monday of module/week 7.

Wk6N4 Ralph Waldo Emerson

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