“Self-Reliance” is not a structured essay so much as a jazz performance. That is, Emerson’s purpose is less to deliver a focused argument than to improvise, to riff on the themes of independence and originality in an extended thought experiment. I enjoy his sentences the way I enjoy complicated guitar solos that enthrall by virtue of their sheer unpredictability. Despite Emerson’s high-flown rhetoric and complicated diction, clear themes emerge throughout the essay, namely: non-conformity; the divinity within every individual; and nature as a touchstone for personal awakening.
Like Anne Hutchinson, Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Morton, and other dissenters in the course readings (one thinks of John Proctor’s character in The Crucible, as well as the revolutionary spirit of Franklin’s writing), Emerson sees the integrity of his own conscience as his highest moral obligation. “[I]mitation is suicide,” he writes. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” (1164). The innocent confidence of a child, who “conforms to nobody” (1164), is thus a trait for adults to emulate. “Nothing at last is sacred,” he claims, recalling Thomas Paine’s denunciation of self-deception through conformity, “but the integrity of your own mind” (1165). Emerson recognizes that dissent is difficult, that it inspires backlash from the majority: “For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure” (1167). However, honest living requires disobeying public opinion when it runs counter to one’s own conscience. External social pressures, he argues, are “in conspiracy against the [humanity] of every one of its members” (1165). We see this most poignantly in political parties, or “communities of opinion,” which require blind adherence to beliefs that, when insisted upon without reflection, become thoroughly dishonest. We should beware of the “prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere” (1167) and should, instead, have the courage and self-respect to discover our own truths, even if this means bucking the majority or perhaps changing our minds about something we once believed to be true.
If we have the courage to seek our own personal truths, Emerson suggests, we will stand a better chance of discovering the image of God within ourselves. Rather than being “clapped into jail by [our] consciousness” (1165), we ought to consider that “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards” (1164). In fact, divine truth can only be revealed by “a divine man” (1164). When we respect ourselves enough to trust our own instincts, we recognize our inner lives as holy ground. Emerson likens this awareness to God’s commandment to Moses to remove his shoes in the presence of the divine. When others are amazed “by a simple declaration of the divine fact” through our courageous expressions of personal and original wisdom, Emerson writes, “[b]id them take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within” (1173). This is the reverse of Calvinism, which holds that human nature is inherently and irreparably corrupt without the providential intervention of irresistible grace. Instead, Emerson and other Transcendentalists see human nature as fundamentally holy. Corruption of that original divinity, according to this view, comes from conformity, not from innate sinfulness. While it initially seems contradictory to assert that human nature is unified while arguing for self-reliance and non-conformity, it is this fundamental divinity that Emerson sees as uniting all of humanity through “the resolution of all into the ever blessed ONE” (1173). That is, our shared divinity is not a false unity like social conformity. It is a shared essence linking us to the sublime, an essence we can each discover and express in our own way if we remain true to our natural instincts.
The way to discover the sublime and, consequently, our own divinity, is through the physical world. As Paine views natural laws as “the true theology” (discoverable through science), so Emerson sees nature as a touchstone for the spirit: the external reminder of our internal holiness. “We lie in the lap of immense intelligence,” he writes, “which makes us organs of its activity and receivers of its truth” (1171). Even the written word should be invigorated by the “smell of pines” and “the hum of insects” (1168). It is the “aboriginal Self” (the most primitive and earthy identity) that helps us discover the origin of genius, which Emerson believes is “Spontaneity or Instinct” (1170). This is Calvinistic dogma turned on its head. Wilderness takes the place of the city on the hill as the source of redemption. True sophistication and refinement, to Emerson, comes not from perfecting human nature but by discovering it in its original, perfect form. This is why he argues that “[i]solation must precede true society” (1173). Solitude, open space to think and feel and revel in the full range of sensory experience, is the way to discover one’s own divinity and, consequently, the way to enrich the lives of others. Close connection with nature teach us to trust ourselves, which allows us to then invigorate our friends and neighbors with fresh ideas. Like Jefferson’s defense of religious diversity, Emerson’s essay is a call not only for tolerance of other perspectives but for real celebration of difference as the only way to keep lifting ourselves closer to the sublime.
Emerson is not arguing for anarchy or selfishness at the expense of social good. Rather, he believes fidelity to oneself, to one’s own grasp of the sublime, engenders a stronger and more honest social bond. In brief, Emerson’s message is this: “[T]hat a greater self-reliance,–a new respect for the divinity in man,–must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views” (1175). This search for self-knowledge and affirmation of divinity within every human heart liberates us from the passive trust in providence that we see in Rowlandson’s narrative. Instead, Emerson believes that the vigorous exercise of free will and free intellect allows us to “[chain] the wheel of Chance” and “always drag her after [us]” (1180). In sum, according to Transcendentalism, self-trust gives us power over our individual destinies. This is the idea that drove the American colonists to declare independence from Britain, the spirit behind the abolitionist cause (a theme we see quite clearly in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), and the energy that mobilized American women to defend their right to social and intellectual equality.