Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Self-Reliance: Paragraphs 35-50 Summary & Analysis

Emerson then moves to offer specific applications of self-reliance on a societal scale. He believes that self-reliance as a way of life can be applied to many elements of contemporary society, which is desperately in need of reform. American religion, which emphasizes appeals to something outside of the self for assistance, could instead become something that makes people more capable. A greater trust in the individual would end the hold outdated religions and philosophies have on morality.
One of the challenges of living out Emerson’s philosophy is its abstraction. In this section, Emerson systematically imagines how self-reliance could reform every aspect of American society. These practical applications address major societal issues of the day, especially the concerns that gave birth to the Second Great Awakening.
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Emerson also argues that self-reliance could have an impact on American culture as a whole. Rather than traveling abroad to become cultured in the traditional sense, Americans should turn towards home and use what they find there to create their own culture. Americans should also as a nation reject the idea that society is somehow supposed to progress across time. A more self-reliant nation would understand that traditional notions of progress are misreadings of the stops and starts that are common across all human history. Society does not ever really progress—what we normally call progress, like technology, really just weakens us.
Another significant concern that Emerson addresses in this section is the anxiety that many Americans had about the continuing influence of Europe, especially England, on American culture. Emerson’s insistence on the U.S. as a legitimate source of culture is based in part on his own perspective of nature as a source of truth. One of the criticisms of the U.S. by Europeans was that it was too rural and provincial to make any claims on civilization and culture. Emerson undercuts this criticism of American culture by turning Americans’ lack of amenities associated with progress—especially cities—into a strength.
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Emerson also believes that the mania for basing our identities on what we own must stop, and people should instead understand that the truly valuable part of any person is their individuality. Finally, the growth of political parties and regional identities should also cease. People should instead simply govern themselves by individual intuition. In the final analysis, Emerson says, all that is good is rooted in the self-reliance of the individual.
Another significant tension in early American culture was the rise of a striving middle class that was eager to attain property and become more engaged in the political progress to support that desire for gain; their interests clashed with those of an older, more aristocratic ruling class and gave birth to rival political parties. In this last section, Emerson addresses practical concerns over factionalism and class by offering self-reliance as a counter to the materialism he sees as a danger to American society.
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