Self-Reliance

Self-Reliance Paragraph 17-20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Emerson’s wish for his age is that people will finally come to understand how ridiculous consistency and conformity are. Conformity to society should therefore be actively opposed, and Emerson hopes that the individual will “reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works” —that is, the Oversoul or God. In fact, Emerson believes that a clear-eyed examination of the people cited as the sources of morality—Jesus, for example—will reveal that they were simply individuals who lived with perfect trust in themselves.
Emerson’s essay is primarily directed toward the individual, but the discussion in this section makes it clear that embracing a more individualistic, nonconformist morality also has the potential to have a large-scale impact on society. Emerson also makes explicit references to transcendentalist beliefs with regards to the individual, God, and the universe, namely that all three are connected by a transcendent truth. Contemplating the individual is therefore one of the important ways the individual can find truth.
Themes
Transcendentalism Theme Icon
Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness  Theme Icon
Given that the people commonly revered by society were just individuals with complete self-trust, Emerson says, modern individuals should take heart that their intuitions and self-trust are equal to anyone else’s. An ordinary person might think that there is nothing in them that “corresponds to the force which built a tower or sculptured a marble god,” or might feel that “a palace, a statue, or a costly book have an alien or forbidding air.” But a more self-reliant attitude would help the individual to understand that their own human perceptions are more important than the physical art or architecture they perceive: these objects are “suitors for his notice, petitioners to his faculties” and not anything to feel overawed by.
Emerson’s argument here is that individual perceptions are on par with or even more important than the actual works or texts that inspire those perceptions. His inversion of the usual hierarchy of sources of truth reflects both his belief in nonconformity and his total trust in the individual as a source of truth. These concrete descriptions of how to look at high art or architecture also provide examples for the reader of how to live in the world as a self-reliant person.
Themes
Transcendentalism Theme Icon
Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness  Theme Icon