Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the central figures associated with the American philosophical and literary movement known as transcendentalism. Transcendentalism thrived during the late 1830s to the 1840s in the US and originated with a group of thinkers in New England that included Emerson. The transcendentalists believed that the US needed reformation in its religion, arts, higher education, and culture. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is one of the most important statements of transcendentalist beliefs and how they apply to everyday life.
In Emerson’s transcendentalism, the individual is the supreme source of truth because the universe (or “Oversoul”) is inside each individual, and each individual is a part of the universe, just as nature is. Emerson further argues that there is an underlying unity to everything, including the individual, and that seeing the parts of the universe as separate from the individual is nothing more than a bad habit. That is why Emerson sees “children, babes, and brutes” as being “pretty oracles nature yields”—he means that they are not yet in the habit of seeing themselves as separate from everything around them.
Emerson therefore believes that the search for truth should always start with contemplation of the individual self and nature. He posits that when the individual engages in self-contemplation, they come to understand that the individual isn’t separate from all parts of the universe but is instead “one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed.” Emerson also argues that because all of creation is simply a reflection of an underlying truth, contemplating the individual is a very good shortcut to understanding the truth of existence. He believes that if each individual can just pay close enough attention to themselves and ignore the noise of other individuals and the senses, they will eventually understand that “we lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams.”
Emerson’s definition of the self-reflection needed to find this truth is very specific. He is careful to make clear that self-reflection is not merely intellectual, in the sense that it applies only to the individual reflecting on their own personal thoughts. While he certainly does believe that the individual should reflect on thoughts and ideas, Emerson explicitly makes clear that self-reflection also involves simply listening to one’s instincts. In other words, he sees the individual’s intuition as also containing the individual’s truth. In fact, as Emerson puts it, intuition is the “primary wisdom... whilst all later teachings are tuitions.” Ultimately, Emerson’s guidelines for the practice of self-reflection can be summed up in his famous saying: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He insists that the individual can only find truth within themselves — their whole self, in their conscious thoughts and deeper intuitions — and that only by “trusting thyself” can they access that truth. This idea is the foundation of Emerson’s concept of self-reliance.
This philosophy was a radical departure for the time, and in conflict with traditional thought and society. In fact, Emerson specifically argues against the prevailing beliefs by stating that truth cannot be found in either the conventional morality of mass culture or in institutions, such as the church or government, because they discourage the individual from contemplating the self. Emerson argues that, instead, the individual can only find the truth by paying attention to their own mind and intuition. To Emerson, then, it is solitude, rather than the company of others, that is most conducive to the discovery of the truth. Being able to hear one’s inner voice, despite the influence of society, is what makes a person great.
But Emerson is under no illusion that hearing one’s inner voice is easy. When Emerson states that “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages,” he is pointing out two related but distinct things. First, he is stating that the individual’s own insights and intuitions are more valuable and contain more truth than any of the received wisdom from society, and second, he is acknowledging that each individual has to learn this for himself. In other words, Emerson is admitting that such trust in oneself takes effort and is attained only through practice.
He also argues that the institutions and thinkers that most people assume serve as sources of truth are not truly such sources; upon examination, Emerson says, important religious and ethical moments in history are always the result of specific individuals. He claims that “[a]n institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as, the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson. Scipio, Milton called ‘the height of Rome’; and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” The individual’s influence underlies what eventually became the institution.
Emerson goes a step further by arguing that the institutions themselves and society as a whole can in fact serve as impediments to finding truth. Society actively reduces the likelihood of an individual accessing their own internal truth. As he puts it: intuition and insight “are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.” Society, in Emerson’s transcendentalist view, is a force that the individual must escape in order to gain access to truth.
Transcendentalism Quotes in Self-Reliance
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.
We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.