Reading: Self-Reliance


Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882. (1967). Self-reliance. White Plains, N.Y. :Peter Pauper Press.


Read the following excerpt from “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. When you are finished, respond to the comprehension questions below the excerpt, respond to the discussion questions, and comment on another student’s response.

From “Self-Reliance”
By Ralph Waldo Emerson (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

“Ne te quaesiveris extra.” (“Seek no one besides yourself.”)

“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.”

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though 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. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact makes much impression on him, and another none. It is not without preestablished harmony, this sculpture in the memory. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. Bravely let him speak the utmost syllable of his confession. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. It needs a divine man to exhibit any thing divine. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

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 connection of events. Great men have always done so and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the Eternal was stirring at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not pinched in a corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but redeemers and benefactors, pious aspirants to be noble clay plastic under the Almighty effort, let us advance and advance on Chaos and the Dark. …

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 our own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. …

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Out upon your guarded lips! Sew them up with packthread, do. Else, if you would be a man, speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. Ah, then, exclaim the aged ladies, you shall be sure to be misunderstood. Misunderstood! It is a right fool’s word. Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Comprehension Question:

Directions: Read the essay carefully. You may want to read it more than once.

1) Looking at the entire essay, what does Emerson mean by self-reliance?

2) Summarize Emerson’s major points.

3) Interpret the first sentence. What does every person realize at some moment of his or her education?

4) “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Interpret Emerson’s Meaning.

5) “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.” Explain what Emerson means.

6) Respond to the essay. Write a paragraph expressing your reactions to the essay.

Self-Reliance Discussion
14 14 unread replies. 14 14 replies.
What are the readings strengths? What features, logic, emotional appeals were persuasive? Do the ideas represented in the reading hold merit? What experiences, values, beliefs do you have that provide you with a favorable opinion of the ideas found in the reading? How do the ideas embedded in the reading reinforce existing ideas, values or beliefs you have or do they provide you with new ways of viewing things. If new, what is new and how does it apply to your life?

What are the weaknesses of the reading? Were there aspects of the reading that were not persuasive. What experiences, beliefs, or values that you hold conflict with the ideas in the reading? Did the author make unwarranted conclusions or inferences? Or did the author build an argument based on unsupported assumptions? Or perhaps, the author uses unclear concepts or faulty information to inform to make the arguments?

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