Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Self-Reliance: Paragraphs 29-32 Summary & Analysis

Emerson laments that despite the good that could come from a self-reliant morality, society is still mostly influenced by conformity as morality. He believes that given the culture of his age, spiritual solitude (if not actual solitude, given all the demands of day-to-day life) probably still provides the best chance of the individual achieving self-reliance. If the individual cannot maintain that state, then at a minimum, Emerson believes they can still call out falseness wherever they see it, even if that means hurting or disappointing those who are closest to them; the obviousness of the individual’s virtue will eventually bring others around.
Emerson emphasizes the more concrete and practical side of his approach to morality by acknowledging that for most people, solitude and the time for self-contemplation are luxuries. This acknowledgment would have appealed to the striving but very busy Americans he discusses in more detail at the end of the essay.
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The self-reliant individual will also experience blow-back from society as a whole, which will accuse the individual of embracing a complete lack of all morals. Emerson responds to this possible accusation by pointing out that the self-reliant individual can absolve themselves of guilt by making sure they have met responsibilities to those closest to them, or, if those responsibilities do not accord with that individual’s notions of morality, by dismissing such concerns out of hand. This sounds easy, but it is not, says Emerson, since it “demands something god-like” to face down the mandates of conventional morality and society.
Emerson supports his case for the practicality of his brand of self-reliant morality by offering reasonable solutions for dealing with the pressures most people are likely to encounter if they embrace his nonconformist perspective. Anticipating objections and admitting that they may be partially true are argumentative tactics that are designed to disarm the skeptical reader.
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