Highlights from “Self-Reliance”

…By Ralph Waldo Emerson.  I copied some of this for a friend the other day, a friend who isn't as happy with "thick" reading as I am, and he made me realize that if you sift through the rather dense weave of old language and dense arguments with your fingers, you can pull gems out of Emerson that will make anyone's day. 

This is a list of the best sentences, if you will, from this excellent essay, with my adjustments and occasional commentary in brackets and elipses.  It's less a collection of quotes, and more an outline of the piece.  If you like it, please understand that the whole tangly mess is brilliant and wonderfully worth it to read and you should do it no matter how long it takes you; but for some geniuses like Emerson, even skimming the bones of his thoughts are marvelously good for ours, so I offer these here for the time-stripped and classics-averse to enjoy too.

  • Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost


  • Great works of art…teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility…most…when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.
  • We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.  …but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.


  • Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.  [I want that on a T-shirt.  In Chinese.]


  • Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the [self-reliance] of every one of its members. … The virtue in most request is conformity.


  • Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. 

    [There’s a great part right after this where he describes a churchgoer asking him when he’s young, essentially “how can you trust your impulses when they might come from the Devil?”, and his answer is, “I don’t think so, but (quote) If I’m the Devil’s child, then I’ll live from the Devil.”  For Emerson, self-reliance meant having the guts to be what you were created to be, and having enough faith to not doubt the usefulness of your own creation.  <3!]


  • Truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none.


  • I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.

    [Italics mine.  An excellent example, perhaps one of the best, of a positive argument from existentialism!]


  • 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.


  • The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character.


  • But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.


  • The sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows.


  • [There are some bits that just can’t be condensed…the “foolish consistency” argument is amazing, but it’s all or nothing…]


  • Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.


  • Be it how it will, do right now.  [If that’s not Zen, I don’t know what is.]


  • Always scorn appearances, and you always may. The force of character is cumulative.


  • That popular fable of the sot who was picked up dead drunk in the street, carried to the duke's house, washed and dressed and laid in the duke's bed, and, on his waking, treated with all obsequious ceremony like the duke, and assured that he had been insane, owes its popularity to the fact, that it symbolizes so well the state of man, who is in the world a sort of sot, but now and then wakes up, exercises his reason, and finds himself a true prince.

    [Fascinating that we don’t seem to have a story like that nowadays.]


  • What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? 

    [This one I put in just for sheer gorgeousness, and to point out that science has informed beautiful literature for a long long time…this whole section is a great example.  And by the way, the “power” he’s referring to here is Spontaneity or Intuition, if you were curious. ;)]


  • The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure, that it is profane to seek to interpose helps.


  • Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. 

    [This, and what follows it in the text, may be my favorite bit.]


  • [Only Life] avails, not the having lived.

    [In the original it's "Life only avails", but that antiquated construction confuses the point for some people.  I love, love, love this one; I think it's the greatest wisdom one could possibly carry forward into growing old.  Only Life…not the "having lived".  It's sort of a restatement of my Higher Law #1:  Keep Trying.  Only said much, much better…but there's no shame at all in being jealous of Emerson I think.  (Well, he would think there was.  But he dead.  ;)]


  • I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.


  • Henceforward I am the truth's. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law.


  • The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes. But the law of consciousness abides.


  • Prayer that craves a particular commodity, — any thing less than all good, — is vicious.  [AMEN!]


  • Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will.


  • Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.


  • Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.   [Fascinating point, which he supports with arguments later on; for example, “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. … He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun.”]


  • Great men…leave no class. He who is really of their class will not be called by their name, but will be his own man, and, in his turn, [a] founder.


  • Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long…They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.  But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature.


  • Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.  [These are the last two lines. ;)]


*One last comment — Emerson refers to "man" and "manhood" throughout this piece, and others.  I believe his sexism is ignorance, and further I firmly believe that if I had an hour with the man, I could talk him right out of it, because he was obviously a clear thinker and a believer in honesty and universalism of principle.  Hence, it doesn't upset me here like it does in some other writings…in the time he was writing, to say anything else (he/she?) would have been pretty literally unthinkable; it would have been such a huge point as to require a separate essay.  But it is worth meditating on how this wasn't that long ago, really, that freedom and education and uprightness and full life meant, literally, "manhood".  And that not only doesn't it mean that today, but I can openly write here about it, throw my education around and furthermore, openly threaten to kick anyone's ass (or perhaps flash my tits at them) who disagrees with me.  Viva las modernity.  ;)

About puredoxyk

Word addict, kungfu/taiji nut, and life-partner to polyphasic sleep. Rabid fan of as many hobbies as the world will let me pry into its piddly fourth dimension (it helps to have knocked out the wall).
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