Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Self-Reliance: Paragraphs 12-16 Summary & Analysis

Emerson says the other thing that prevents trust in oneself is the mistaken idea that consistency is a virtue. People judge who we are by our past acts and words, Emerson says, and so we are afraid to go against them today. Why drag around this “corpse of your memory,” Emerson asks, when really there is nothing to be lost by contradicting it? The individual who would be self-reliant should instead simply live in the present. Such consistency is “the hobgoblin of little minds,” and every individual should freely contradict themselves without fear of the possibility of being misunderstood. Doing so would put a person in the company of all the famous and good people in Western culture—whom Emerson goes on to list.
Emerson is attacking the Enlightenment ideals of reason and order as the basis of individual and societal standards and is instead embracing Romantic ideals by celebrating inconsistency and comparing memory to a “corpse.” His long list of historical figures who are celebrated for their inconsistency rather than their adherence to institutions also provides encouragement and inspiration for individuals who want to reject conventional morality.
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With regards to consistency, Emerson reminds the reader that human nature has its own internal consistency, so it truly is impossible for a person to do something against their own nature, as long as that person is honest with themselves. The self-reliant individual has as much consistency as any part of the natural world, a point Emerson makes with several metaphors that compare human nature to mountain ranges, pines, and a swallow. “The Andes or Himmaleh” mountains look jagged if observed from close up, for example, but look more uniform if one observes them from a distance. He also compares human nature with the zigzagging course of a ship that, seen on the large scale, sticks to a path that brings it to its final destination. Persistence in living according to one’s own conscience will always bring a person to the right course of action, and the impact of such actions is cumulative, a truth that is readily illustrated, Emerson believes, in the lives of people admired in the past for greatness.
Contemplation of nature is an important practice for transcendentalists and Romantics, so Emerson’s many uses of examples drawn from the natural world are designed to point to nature as a source of truth and inspiration for how to relate to the universe. Emerson also uses another metaphor—the immediate course of a ship when observed in light of its overall journey—to strengthen support for his argument that inconsistency is sometimes merely a matter of perception. The references to nature and the concrete idea of a ship’s path make Emerson’s argument more comprehensible and less abstract.
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