Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was a pastor and he would follow in his footsteps to become a clergyman. However, after suffering from a series of deaths, he lost faith in the clergy and left on a trip to Europe. While there, he toured the continent and became acquainted with many different schools of thought. He came to lecture about spirituality as well as living ethically. “Self-Reliance” was published as an essay based on one of these lectures, as were many of his other works. After being published in 1841, it came to be known as one of his most popular and definitive works.
“Self Reliance” has been revered as an essential text in the ideological pillars of America. Though Emerson borrows ideas put forth in ancient Greece and Renaissance-age Europe, he elegantly stitches them together to create a dense and profound text. The ideas it presents, as well as the elegance in which they are presented are enough to give this essay credibility. “Trust thyself; every heart must vibrate to that iron string” is the core of the text, and its message can be seen throughout America’s history. From Columbus’s conquest, to the pilgrim’s plight of religious freedom and voyage into this wild and unknown continent, to the manifestation of manifest destiny, to the industrial revolution, the civil rights movement, to many wars waged, “Self Reliance” could be cited as their credo, for better or for worse.
Emerson left the clergy and his post as a religious man because of his unrelenting suspicions that are voiced in this essay. He said, after leaving the clergy, “I have sometimes thought, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers” (Age of Sage). To further elaborate on this point, Emerson wrote in “Self Reliance” that the more devoted to a group of people you are, the less of an individual you become: “If I know a man’s sect, I anticipate his argument” he claims. The more one relies on the bounds set by a group before him, the more constrained his mind is forced to become.
Emerson is considered a founding father of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism is an intellectual movement, (often believed to be one of America’s first), that borrows from schools of thought such as English and German romanticism, the philosophical ideas of Immanuel Kant, and the biblical criticisms of Hume, to name a few. Emerson himself actually preferred the term “Idealism” to describe what we now call Transcendentalism. In its fruition, Transcendentalism was a radical departure from the spiritual and religious beliefs. Its main tenant, as presented in “Self Reliance,” is a trust above all in one’s self, as opposed to trust in the church or government.
This text is anthologized as an “American” text due to the ideals it addresses throughout its entirety, one of the biggest being democracy. Throughout his essay, Emerson argues on the behalf of democracy by explaining to readers that “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” (2). In other words, as Americans, we must work hard in order to gain anything for ourselves, as nothing of value will ever be simply handed over to us. This is the democratic way of thinking, and has been since America as a nation was created.
Furthermore, Emerson’s essay should remain anthologized, as the concepts found throughout “Self-Reliance” continues to find relevance in present-day society. Emerson’s essay continuously advocates for originality as well as innovation throughout its entirety. Without innovation, creativity, and originality, America would be unable to move forward as a nation. If society as a whole were to conform to a singular manner of thinking, America would be incapable of progress. America will always need these forward-thinkers, or those who march to the beat of their own drum, as these are the members of our society that help us in making necessary progress. What especially makes Emerson’s text so relevant across a multitude of platforms is that it is not restrictive to a specific time period, and remains important to the overall human condition. The ideas found throughout “Self-Reliance” continue to serve as a reminder to present-day society as well as advice for the future generations to come out what it means to be an efficiently functioning member of American society.