Unlocking Self-Reliance: Emerson’s Timeless Wisdom

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“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

“Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth,” said Alan Watts while musing on the nature of self and the here and now. Yet, it’s common to hold that identity is immutable, a constant amidst life’s shifting landscape. We ask the universe who we are and it replies, “This is who you are.” But essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson defies the world, elegantly arguing “Trust thyself” in Self-Reliance and Other Essays. The transcendentalist author reveres the individual and implores readers to admonish others, to recognize their self as the supreme source of wisdom.

It’s inevitable to self-define categorically, as part of an ingroup-outgroup dichotomy. Hearing our beliefs repeated in a symposium adds a sense of security and satisfaction with the world, an escape from Emil Cioran’s rhapsody to the absurd. But confidence in others deflates innate brilliance—the unique perception through which experience is filtered.

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.”

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“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Be like a child, free from social anchors: “looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome.” Don’t allow youths’ senescence to coincide with a loss of curiosity, a loss of self-trust. Otherwise what society expects becomes a checklist of beliefs, stifling creativity and demeans the intrinsic value of the self.

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stick company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”

Like Alain de Botton’s pragmatic advice for how to live: “The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic,” but that logic must be discovered independently of the echo chamber. It’s not enough to believe an ideal if every person proclaims it as a virtue. Individuals must ascertain the truth alone. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

But don’t allow current ideas, beliefs, and truths to be sculpted into a marble statue. Accept change. The present self is not eternally true—a falsity that inevitably shatters. For consistency is a rare phenomenon in the universe.

“The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.”

Allow yourself to adopt new perceptions and abandon them when they no longer prove fruitful. Conforming to past behaviors to satisfy social pressure creates a stagnant pool where only scum can thrive. Unchain yourself and allow a spring to flow, moving with the ebb and flow of awareness.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul simply has nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

Turn to great people not as a warehouse of wisdom but examples of self-reliant sages. No great intellect built their foundation with the steel beams of others; Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius are revered because they embraced their individuality. “Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half-possession.” By cultivating the self the road to wisdom is paved.

“Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell me they are not leaning willows, new powers shall appear; that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him,—and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history.”

Written in 1841, Self-Reliance and Other Essays contains a rich array of Emerson’s work, including the Harvard Divinity School Address. His widely quoted poetic essay is a brilliant reminder of the sublime nature of existence, that each person must trust themselves to live fully. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”