Emerson includes three epigraphs, one that translates as “Do not seek for things outside of yourself,” another from a poem by Beaumont and Fletcher that emphasizes that a person’s fate is not determined by the stars, and a third that praises the “power and speed” of a child raised in the wilds of nature.
Emerson previews important themes of his essay in each epigraph. Epigraph one encourages self-reliance, the central trait of the new morality he espouses in the essay. Epigraph two celebrates individuality rather than fate as the main influence on a person’s life. Epigraph three encourages the reader to raise their children in nature, an exhortation that reflects the transcendentalist belief that having a relationship with nature is one path to a connection with God.
Emerson opens the essay by mentioning that he read a poem and found himself stirred by its unconventionality. He notes that truly original art frequently has that impact, and that the feelings such a work stirs are more important than the thoughts it contains. To place one’s thoughts out in the world because one believes they reveal something universal is what makes an individual a genius, Emerson says, but he believes that most ordinary people never speak such thoughts out loud, which is a shame. Emerson thinks people should learn to pay attention to intuitions when they arise, and should voice them, because they are worth even more than the pronouncements of a famous writer or philosopher. What a shame it is, he says, to have a moment of intuition without sharing it, only to hear the same thought expressed by another person.
Emerson’s first move in the essay is to convince the reader that respecting intuition as a source of knowledge can yield greater enlightenment than looking to other sources outside of the individual. He does so by making several provocative claims: individual perceptions of art or literature are more important than the actual works that occasion them, and ordinary intuitions are more important than those of respected sources of knowledge. These two claims reflect the respect that transcendentalists have for the individual and Emerson’s rejection of conventionality.
Emerson believes that every individual has a moment in their life when they recognize that envy is poisonous, a lack of originality is destructive, and that it is important to accept oneself. He argues that each person has to do their own work to discover themselves and the goodness that is in the world. Every person is unique by the design of the universe, and God will never reward insight to the person who is not brave enough to embrace what makes him unique.
Emerson’s next move is to identify a problem by representing “every man”—his ideal American reader who feels stifled by societal expectations but is not quite sure how to find the answers to how he should live. Emerson is already on the attack against the dangers of conformity, a topic that he addresses in even greater length in subsequent passages.