Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

GNED 102

Dr. Fike


Helpful source for you to consult: 

Major Concept:

1.  Write down your definition of "self-reliance."


2.  Share your definition in 5 small groups of 4-5 people apiece.  Then do the following three things:  (a) come up with a definition of "self-reliance" to share with the class; (b) do the following exercise; and (c) consider how what you just discovered about Emersonian self-reliance relates to Transcendentalism.


Directions:  Use à or ß to put each item in the correct column.



Self-reliance     Conformity leading to falsity     NOT self-reliance

Church doctrine

Independent thought

Trusting yourself



Children’s behavior

“dead institutions”




Critical thinking

Educating “fools”


Living from within

My own nature

What other people think

“a dead church”

“a dead Bible-society”

Relativism (what’s right for me is RIGHT)

Party affiliation; group think

What concerns ME

Punishment for nonconformity

Institutions (“the lengthened shadow of one man”)


Solitude, silence

Timid and apologetic attitude


The “authority of the soul”

New perception

Using the Bible as a crutch

Old rubbish

Direct communication with the divine

Communication with “the inner ocean”

“Friend, child, sickness, fear, want, charity”


“I am the truth.”

Eternal law

Being civilized

Being an aborigine

Being myself

Doing what makes me happy—following my heart

Honoring noble people, not harming ignoble people

“what each has” (property)

“what each is” (identity)


Responding uniquely to great thinkers of the past


3.  Large-group discussion:  Do you advocate Emersonian self-reliance or not?  Do you really think that your own “inner voice” is more important than thinking, for example, what the Christian church--or some other faith--tells you to believe?


4.  Connections to other reading assignments: 

5.  Do you see any contradictions or blind spots in Emerson’s essay?



6.  Do you agree that the best way to cultivate the self is to be self-reliant in the Emersonian sense?  What can we learn about the self from previous writers, existing institutions, history, and travel? Why throw out all of this and say, "It's all about ME"?  If previous writers do not matter, why should we bother to read Emerson?  Isn't there something self-indicting about his position?

7.  Can you identify the fallacies in each of the following quotations?