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.
The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.
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. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. ("Self-Reliance")
Basic set up:
Ralph Waldo Emerson argues in his essay "Self-Reliance" that we should all follow our own minds. Don't let anyone tell you what to do… not even Thoreau.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is all about individualism, and we can see it in these paragraphs from his essay. According to him, we should all try to return to the state of innocence of children. That's because kids don't sit around and obsess about what people think of them. They follow their own minds. They're independent, and they have strong opinions: they love things or they hate things.
According to Emerson, we should all strive to be like that. Because having an independent mind, and not giving into pressure to follow the herd, is the only way we can be true to our own identity. So let's all be nonconformists. Let's be rebels and go against the grain. Let's do what we want.
Even though Ralph Waldo Emerson is writing in essay form, his style of writing in the above passage is still very literary. Check out those flowery flourishes. Dang.
A lot of the most famous ideas and concepts developed by the American Romantics were elaborated in essays, such as Emerson's "Self-Reliance" above. The American Romantics weren't just great at writing fiction and poetry; they were also great at writing essays. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from the Romantics about writing those pesky English papers?