Obedience and Destiny In Emerson's Self Reliance

[1] “Self-reliance,” Emerson’s phrase, was something of a rallying cry for 19th century America. Ralph Waldo Emerson published his short essay “Self-Reliance” in 1841, four years after he delivered his Phi Beta Kappa address to Harvard, where he identified the quiet emergence of the first distinct group of “American Scholars,” including men like Oliver Wendell Homes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman and David Thoreau. America at time is often characterized as a land of virgin soil. Its soil was “virgin” in the sense that it was still largely uncultivated, with thousands of miles of unexplored woodlands, mountains, and rivers beckoning in to the West; but the soil was “virgin” in yet another way. America’s ground was unencumbered by any physical reminders of a singular cultural inheritance – no medieval churches, no ancestral mansions or battlegrounds of perpetual war. America as a culture was still unformed. Emerson saw himself as a member of the group of American Scholars who were engaged in a project of forging a national culture, self-creating in the way that the individual pioneer was forging for himself a new life in the West. “Self-reliance,” as a rallying cry, thus communicates on two levels: the words bring to mind the severe and beautiful natural woodlands of the West and the individualism of the pioneer, both of which Emerson wrote beautifully about as key aspects of the distinct American experience; but self-reliance was also was a national idea, a bigger project of a new nation forging itself for itself, creating a thoroughly unique, wholly original national cultural identity, a task for which Emerson was a leader.

[2] One might ask: how is it that Emerson, the epitome of individualism, who tells one to “cast off the common motives of humanity” (Emerson 131) and to be a “law to himself,” (131), who writes of association as if it were chainmail for the human soul – can also be engaged in the collective project of creating a unique national culture? More specifically, doesn’t the first aspect of self-reliance, the doctrine of radical individualism, run directly contrary to the second aim, which is that of national unity? It is true that Emerson demands that the individual, in order to create the “wholly strange and new,” (129) conform to nobody. But, nonconformity is not the same thing as negation of society. In fact, to Emerson, the true nonconformist is actually firmly grounded in his place within a social hierarchy. His originality does not come from his active creation of Self, but from his passive embrace of the unique position in the larger order of society and the universe he has been gifted. This embrace of position means that Emerson’s Self is not the product of free agency, like an anarchist who believes he can simply do what he pleases regardless of anybody else, but rather the Self is a product of destiny. Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance, far from requiring the individual to absolve himself of society’s circumstances, requires the individual to obey them, which applies as much to the pioneer as it does to a larger project of national culture creation.

[3] Emerson uses one poignant metaphor about land early in the essay to frame his discussion of Self. His second paragraph begins: “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide…” These statements are tempting to read as a statement on the “anarchist model” of Self, to which Emerson is far too often associated. In this model, the Self is a source of freedom. Envy is a reliance on another person’s authority, and therefore “envy is ignorance” because it strips the individual of freedom. Imitation is suicide, likewise, because to imitate is to accept authority, and any restraint on freedom is slow death. However, Emerson quickly qualifies the initial two statements with two more: the man arrives that the conviction, “…that he must take himself for better, for worse as his portion; that thought the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till” (emphasis added, 121). These second two statements radically change the meaning of the initial two. Envy is ignorance not because it relies on false authority or diminishes freedom; envy is ignorance because imitation is literally impossible. The individual “for better, for worse” must acquiesce to that “plot of ground which is given to him to till.” This land metaphor calls to mind the early American claim that the westward land was a “manifest destiny,” a phrase which notes that America was not entitled to the land because it was “free” but because the land was part of its national destiny, as fact preordained by God. America was realizing a Self that was given to it by God. Emerson’s use of the land metaphor must be taken the same way. This “land” is given by God to the individual. He has only this, and nothing more, “to till” and to gain his “kernel of nourishing corn.” Emerson is placing the individual on a small pocket within a larger society, a pocket handed to him by God.

[4] Emerson uses a nearly identical metaphor to begin the very next paragraph: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you; the society of your contemporaries, the connexion of events. Great men have always done so and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age…” (121). He constructs this metaphor in the same way: he begins with “Trust thyself,” but quickly qualifies by saying that this Self is “found for you” by “divine Providence,” that it is to be “accepted” rather than chosen, and that it is defined in relationship to “the society of your contemporaries.”

[5] This “passive” acceptance of Self is part of the essential structure of Emerson’s argument. Emerson strictly divides the Self and from the “I”. The former, the Self, is something of a mystical essence that precedes the individual, like the “plot of ground” given to him by “divine Providence” before he is born; it is the ultimate actuality buried deep within all the roles and guises of an individual; it is fixed and unchangeable and given by God. The latter, the “I”, is meant to be understood as the human superstructure on top of the Self, the person endowed with the free will to choose one path over another. Emerson repeatedly assumes this division of autonomy: “Absolve you to yourself,” (122) “Trust thyself,” (121) “Absolve you to yourself,” (122) “Insist on yourself,”(134) “he must take himself” (121). Even the title phrase, “Self-Reliance,” implies a strict sharing of authority between the man and his “Self” – for who, if not an “I,” would have the conscious choice to rely or to not rely on the “Self”?

[6] Regarding the relationship between the two, Emerson is unclear. He attributes to the individual some sort of freedom to ignore the essential structure of his Self, but it is a hazardous freedom at best. The call for “Self-reliance,” as mentioned, only makes sense if one has the free will to choose to rely or not to rely on Self – otherwise the phrase would be incoherent. This construction has its theological precedent in the concept of sin. God handed down law at Mt. Sinai, but implicit in his covenant was that the Israelites had the freewill to disregard it. Sin implies the free will to disobey. But of course, just because it is possible to disobey, does not mean that one should, or that ultimately one’s wishes will be borne out. In fact, Emerson’s whole essay Self-Reliance can be seen an attempt is to convince the reader to obey the authority of the Self. In the end, he argues, it is a false choice. “I suppose,” Emerson says, “no man can violate his nature” (125). He who tries becomes, “not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not he real four: so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right” (124). A man who is divided from his Self simply cannot stand as a man; nothing about him is quite right; everything is false. Prayer, he says later in the essay, “supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness” (132). Emerson is calling for a total merger of a man with his Self, and thus a proximate a merger of man with God. All told, Emerson’s supposed doctrine of “defiance” quickly reveals itself to become a doctrine of obedience. Self-reliance might as well be God-reliance.

[7] Today, we have a word to describe this Emersonian merger of the I with the Self: authenticity. The authentic person acts according to his Self; the inauthentic person imitates and is untrue to his Self. That we now lavishly praise “authenticity” as a high moral attribute is direct testament to how successful Emerson’s conceptions of Self and I and of God-reliance have been at permeating our value system. However, Emersonian self-reliance is not just an individual virtue, but also social virtue. Self-reliance, according to a jump that Emerson makes midway through is essay, is a necessary attribtute for the functioning of a society like America and for the fomentation of a true national culture.

[8] Self-reliance, at its core, is a doctrine about the genesis of ideas. The Self is the secret key to creating art and it alone is the dark source of all originality. Yeats had this in mind when, in looking for the source of the truly original poem, he wrote that, “I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” (qtd. in Trilling 11). We come back to the very important question of, What is this Self? Only now, having touched on the Self’s relationship with the Individual, can we discuss the Self’s relationship with the universe – a large, semi-mystical interaction, which accounted for the basis of Transcendental thought.

[9] The search for the answer, Emerson says, “leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct…that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, where all things find their common origin” (127). Emerson’s Self is derived from common substance of all things – what he calls the “last fact,” the darker, primordial, connective essence from which “all things find their common origin.” This “lap of immense intelligence” is from where Originality is born. Only by relying on the Self and its unique place within this essence can we become, “receivers of its truth and organs of its activity… we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams” (128). The relationship is two-fold: individual should trust his spontaneous thoughts, because they are the direct products of all the thinkers and writers and artists of that have preceded him; and, that those spontaneous thought are original, because they pass through the individual’s Self, which gives a unique perspective based on the position that the self occupies. To illustrate, Jack Kerouac’s “bebop prosody” was a modern adoption of this older transcendental, Emersonian idea. Kerouac wrote his entire book On the Road in 27 days, in one paragraph, flowing continuously on one 120-foot long roll of paper copy. He wanted to type without thinking. He wanted to “keep it kickwriting at all costs” (qtd. in Charters xviii). In doing this, he hoped to dissolve the boundary between the individual’s active perceptions and the collective intellectual environment of 1950s America, which he had spent eight years exploring on the road. He wanted to localize the genesis of ideas to, in Emerson’s words, “that gleam of light which flashes across his mind” (121). By not consciously thinking too much about what he was writing, he could traverse the boundary between the individual consciousness and the transcendent collective consciousness; in other words, he could dissolve his active I to the unique position occupied by his Self within a broader society; he could be Self-reliant.

[10] The Self is thus redefined. It is entirely unique, but only in its relationship to other people. It is a distinct mixture of properties culled from the common substances that make up all life. By fulfilling the role that is handed to him, the individual is participating in a long chain of events responsible for the “genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable…” All these links in the chain, however, function independently, and thus all are “demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul” (130). This is Emerson’s vision of a collective society: each individual doing his work, using what gift’s he’s got, a single part in a consensual whole.

[11] Emerson’s Self is part of the American tradition of democratic individualism – the rugged pioneer coupled with the experiment in a self-governing republic. The individual must create his future, but in strict relationship with his countrymen and only on that spot which he has been given in society’s complex web of political, social and economic ties. To this spot he must “submit childlike” (121). In this way, Emerson’s individualism overlaps with his nationalism: the Self is outward-looking, existing for the good of the whole, the advancement of the collective project called “nation.” But the ideal is particularly American in another way. Emerson’s Self is the “virgin soil” that a man is to till his whole life forward, and it is the “virgin soil,” providential and full of hope, that stood to Emerson and early American thinkers and writers and pioneers as both the promise of a national identity and the dark and mystical source of it. The “virgin soil” is the individual and collective testament to a single destiny according to the “Almighty effort” to advance on “Choas and the Dark.”


Charters, Ann. "Introduction." Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002. vi-xxxi.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays: First Series. Boston: Henry Altemus, 1894.
Trilling, Lionel. Sincerity and Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.


Anonymous guess said...

Very insightful, as always. I must point out, however, that Oliver Wendell Holmes has an L in his last name. Of course, the true egotist (not egoist) might see misspelling others' names as a fitting avenue to social advancement.

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