Sunday, February 8, 2009

Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

Hello, all. I thought I would get things started with the discussion on Emerson's "Self-Reliance."

Similar to Nietzsche's work, where the opening fable summarized the point of his essay, Emerson's "Self Reliance" uses a Latin phrase to do the same.

"Ne te quaesiveris extra." OR "Do not look outside of yourself."

Emerson's main argument is that human beings need to rely on themselves (their ideas), follow their initial instincts, and refrain from allowing society's norms and ideals to dictate their thoughts. He urges individuals to allow their ideas to emerge and develop because these ideas have the potential to become the "universal sense." Emerson points out a few of the greatest thinkers--"Moses, Plato, and Milton" as men who were not afraid to trust themselves and voice their opinions. In this sense, their greatest contribution to man may not have been the ideas themselves, but their ability to recognize the grandeur of their own thought and to then share it with the world. He warns that if we do not make our gut instincts known, then on the "Last Judgment" day, the ideas and thoughts we hesitated to share, will be reflected back as our ultimate regret.

Question to Readers:
Is the opening poem the"verses written by an eminent painter" or are the "verses" intended to be ambiguous?

Also, I find it interesting that both Nietzsche and Emerson seem to contradict themselves (no doubt, intentionally) . If the opening poem is in fact the "verses written by an eminent painter", then Emerson , by presenting the unconventional thoughts of another, is providing an example of man's suppression of his own self-expression. Similarily, Nietzche's "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" is dense and pedantic, reflecting human beings' construction of metaphors upon metaphors...upon metaphors. Both essays' forms match their functions.


  1. I feel like the "verses" are meant to be ambiguous, because their subject is unimportant (“let the subject be what it may”). Emerson brings up the point that he read them just so he can confess that “The soul always hears an admonition in such lines”, and then introduce his thesis: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius.”

    To me, he’s saying: “Have you ever read something by some distinguished person that made you feel wrong about your own humble opinion? You shouldn’t.”

    One other reason I feel like the “verses” are not of the opening poem is because the poem seems to exemplify and introduce the essay. The poem is not meant to be criticized, like his reaction to the “verses” is, but rather, elucidated.

    At the same time, I don’t consider “presenting the unconventional thoughts of another” as a form of self-suppression. Does Emerson ever suggest that we don’t do that? How can any man ever receive the “suffrage of the world” (paragraph 6) if no one should support another man’s thoughts?

    And in a curious and somewhat ridiculous sense, if that were true, then that would be equating this essay with the liar paradox… i.e. “This statement is false.” Or, “Take my advice: don’t take anyone’s advice.”

    (Maybe I’m seeing this the wrong way… and I know I’m not being very faithful to Self-Reliance by doubting myself either…)

  2. "Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it."

    In contrast to Nietzsche, the fluidity of truth can is a good thing. Our own truth may divide us, but this division may serve as some form of validation.

    "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."

    Is our "greatness" solely understood through the measures of society's view? How is it self-reliant if we depend on society's misunderstanding/understanding of what see, believe, or think?

  3. In response to Marwin's post:

    Our "greatness" only matters in relation to ourselves. Although Emerson speaks of the "universal sense", he does not mean for it to have a relevance to our lives. He focuses on the relation of the thought to the individual, rather than the relationship of the thought to the rest of the world. What matters is how it makes YOU feel, regardless of whether it is "conventional" or "unconventional."

    On another note, I struggle with the connections Emerson makes with "self-reliance" and God. In paragraph 3, Emerson states that we should "accept the place the divine providence has found for [us]." I understood this to mean that we should relish that God made us each as individuals with our own ways of processing and articulating information. However, by drawing on divine figures, is he not weakening his argument? Is religion not a reliance in another's ideas? Does is not restrict self-reliance?

    Ha, and as I am typing this, I am realizing what Emerson might say...

    He would most likely scoff at the idea of looking to old texts for thoughts, ideas, faith, etc. His reference to a "divine providence" stems from the pure connection an individual spirit can have with God. This idea of "pure thought" is rearticulated throughout his essay (i.e. "children, babes, and even brutes"). Emerson finds the "sentiment" of religion "of more value than any thought [it] may contain."

  4. I think the "verses" are intended to be anything in particular; they are for the reader to interpret. Whatever the reader thinks - whether the verses are ambiguous or if the "verses [are] written by an eminent painter," this wouldn't and shouldn't change the overall meaning of "Self-Reliance." I think it serves as a visual representation of what an "unconventional" piece of art is like; in this case, the "verses" that are written above Emerson's opening paragraph - because for Emerson to begin writing, he was inspired/moved by "the verses written by an eminent painter."

    The big question of "What is conventional/unconventional?" reminds me of the question, "What is normal?” For example, if someone dressing a certain way – maybe with mismatching clothes – another person may view them as dressing unnaturally or they might say “It’s not normal to dress that way.” And the mismatching person would respond with, “What is normal, anyway?” Just because this person dresses DIFFERENTLY, does not mean they aren’t “normal.” This directly relates with what Emerson discusses in “Self-Reliance.” Every time I think about the question, “What is normal?”, I am taken aback because… nothing is normal. “Normal” or “conventional” is only what we are used to and what we have grown to know to be true. People are different and each life on this earth has a myriad of unique experiences in which forms their beliefs.

    And I agree with Marlena’s response to Marwin’s post, that our “greatness” only matters in relation to ourselves, rather than the rest of the world. Emerson constantly reminds us that we need to trust in own beliefs, regardless of what everyone else thinks. In the 9th paragraph, Emerson writes, “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own. But the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Again – here, Emerson further explains that the “great” man is one who can live by his beliefs, even if he is bombarded with conflicting/differing beliefs of everyone else.

  5. Class discussion and your responses have given further clarification. Thanks. :-)


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