Emerson opens his essay with three epigraphs that preview the theme of self-reliance in the essay. He then begins the essay by reflecting on how often an individual has some great insight, only to dismiss it because it came from their own imagination. According to Emerson, we should prize these flashes of individual insight even more than those of famous writers and philosophers; it is the mature thinker who eventually realizes that originality of thought, rather than imitation of what everyone else believes, is the way to greatness.
Emerson then argues that the most important realization any individual can have is that they should trust themselves above all others. Babies, children, and even animals are intuitively aware of this fact, according to Emerson, and so are worthy of imitation. Emerson sees self-reliance as a characteristic of boys, too, with their independent attitudes, lack of respect for authority, and willingness to pass judgment on everything they encounter.
Emerson then shifts to a discussion of the relationship between the individual and society by noting that when we are alone, we can be like babies or children, but when we get out into the world, that little voice inside that carries our truth slips away. Emerson argues that people must embrace nonconformity to recover their self-reliance, even if doing so requires the individual to reject what most people believe is goodness. Emerson believes that there is a better kind of virtue than the opinions of respected people or demands for charity for the needy. This goodness comes from the individual’s own intuition, and not what is visible to society.
Besides, states Emerson, living according to the world’s notion of goodness seems easy, and living according to one’s own notions of goodness is easy in solitude, but it takes a truly brave person to live out one’s own notions of goodness in the face of pressure from society. Although it might seem easier to just go along with the demands of society, it is harder because it scatters one’s force. Aware that being a nonconformist is easier argued than lived, Emerson warns that the individual should be prepared for disapproval from people high and low once he or she finally refuses to conform to society’s dictates. It will be easy to brush off the polite disapproval of cultivated people, but the loud and rough disapproval of common people, the mob, will require all of the individual’s inner resources to face down.
The other thing Emerson sees as a roadblock to the would-be nonconformist is the world’s obsession with consistency. Really though, he argues, why should you be bound at all by your past actions or fear contradicting yourself? Emerson notes that society has made inconsistency into a devil, and the result is small-mindedness. He uses historical and religious examples to point out that every great person we have ever known refused to be bound by the past. If you want to be great, he says, embrace being misunderstood just like them. Emerson argues that the individual should have faith that inconsistency is an appearance only, since every action always reflects an underlying harmony that is rooted in one’s own individuality. So long as the individual is true to themselves, their actions will be authentic and good.
Given his arguments in the first part of the essay, Emerson hopes by now that everyone realizes how ridiculous conformity is and the negative impact it is having on American culture. He describes American culture of the day as one of mediocrity that can only be overcome with the recognition that in each individual is a little bit of the universe, of God, and that wherever the individual lives authentically, God is to be found. Emerson believes people tap into that truth, into justice, and into wisdom by sitting still and letting the underlying reality that grounds us and all creation speak through us in the form of intuition. Everything else—time, space, even the past—appears as something apart from the underlying reality only because of our habits of thinking. Emerson counsels that people can escape that way of thinking by living in the present like plants do, and, like everything in nature, expressing one’s self against all comers.
Emerson laments that his society has lost all sense of what it means to be self-reliant individuals. He describes his historical moment as a weak one that has birthed no great people, and city boys seeking professions quit as soon as they are confronted with an initial failure. Emerson admires the country boy who tries thing after thing, not at all concerned about any failure or conforming to society; these are the kinds of people Emerson believes will make America’s history. If the individual wants to achieve true virtue, Emerson argues, they must go to war against anything that oppresses their sense of individuality, even if people accuse them of gross immorality as a result. Taking care to meet their idea of their duties to loved ones or even to themselves will vindicate them and maybe even bring people around to their way of seeing. Ultimately, Emerson believes that living in this state of war against society is actually true virtue.
Emerson closes his essay by applying the abstract concept of self-reliance to specifics. He believes that self-reliance can revolutionize every part of society if we let it: We should quit praying for something outside of ourselves to save us and instead act. We should quit subordinating our experiences to religions and philosophies and instead listen to our intuition. Emerson argues that Americans especially should stop traveling abroad to become cultured and instead create their own arts, literature, and culture using the materials we find right here at home. Emerson believes that progress is beside the point: we should quit pushing for it because it only saps our strength; society does not progress in a straight line. Emerson argues that people should stop locating their identities in property and instead understand that the most valuable part of a man is inside of him. Self-reliance can even be applied to politics: Emerson argues that we should quit governing ourselves by political parties and instead have each man govern himself by intuition. Emerson concludes by noting that self-reliance is the true path to peace.