Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The wisdom in this essay is life changing.

Some of you know it intimately. Some of you read it once and forgot it. Some of you were forced to read it in school,  just skimmed it, and it didn’t sink in. And some of you have never read it (tragic). So I have condensed this essay into what I believe are his most poignant entries, in the hope that you will read it right now. It is one of the most powerful personal development essays ever written.

While it is well over one hundred years old, you will find Emerson’s insight and wisdom timeless. It is uncanny how closely his message relates to current culture and events.

Change yourself and change the world.

Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson (condensed)

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men- that is genius.

…always the inmost becomes the outmost…

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within… he dismisses without notice his own thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty… tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

We but half express ourselves, and we are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.

God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.

Trust thyself… let us advance and advance on Chaos and the Dark.

Do not think the youth has no force because he cannot speak to you and me… it is that very lump of bashfulness and phlegm which for weeks has done nothing but eat when you were by, that now rolls out these words like bell-strokes… he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.

An immortal youth…would utter opinions on all passing affairs which… would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.

The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of you own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.

I ought to go upright and speak the rude truth in all ways.

Your goodness must have some edge to it – else it is none.

Do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations.

My life is not an apology, but a life.

I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think.

You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.

The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible society, vote with a great party either for the Government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers – under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.

Nature is not slow to equip us in the prison uniform of the party to which we adhere.

For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure.

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.

Why drag about this monstrous corpse of your memory.

Live ever in a new day. Trust your emotion.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do… if you would be a man, speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it may contradict everything you said today.

Misunderstood! It is a right fool’s word. Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythogras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

No man can violate his nature.

Let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect of retrospect.

We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions and do not see that virtue and vice emit a breath every moment.

You genuine action will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly, will justify you now. Greatness appears to the future.

Do right now… the force of character in cumulative.

I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency.

Let us bow and apologize never more. A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him: I wish that he should wish to please me. I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind, I would make it true. Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor moving wherever moves a man; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the center of things. Where he is, there is nature.

Let a man then know his worth.

That source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. For, the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. We first share the life by which things exist, and afterwards see them as appearances in nature, and forget that we have shared their cause. Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom, and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. 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.

Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed.

If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time, all mankind, — although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.

It must be that when God speaketh he should communicate, not one thing, but all things.

Whenever a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away, — means, teachers, texts, temple

In the universal miracle, petty and particular miracles disappear.

Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fullness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul. Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light; where it is, is day; where it was, is night.

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are.

But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

If we live truly, we shall see truly. It is as easy for the strong man to be strong, as it is for the weak to be weak.

When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn.

All that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition.

Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue.

To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is. Who has more obedience than I masters me.

But now we are a mob. Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean, but it goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men.

Why should we assume the faults of our friend, or wife, or father, or child, because they sit around our hearth, or are said to have the same blood? All men have my blood, and I have all men’s.

The power men possess to annoy me, I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act.

I obey no law less than the eternal law.

I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints.

It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth.

You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.

I cannot sell my liberty and my power.

All persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth.

We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night continually.

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.

With the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear.

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance 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.

As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg.

Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will. Regret calamities, if you can thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend your own work, and already the evil begins to be repaired.

The secret of fortune is joy in our hands. Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide… our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it.

My giant goes with me wherever I go.

Traveling is a fool’s paradise.

The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the traveling of the mind?

Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation.

That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington.

The great man imitates in the original crisis when he performs a great act, I will tell him who else than himself can teach him. Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.

All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken.

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle.

In Christendom where is the Christian?

Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them.

And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance.

Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long…they have come to esteem…civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.

But that which a man is does always by necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property, which does not wait the beck of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes. “Thy lot or portion of life,” said the Caliph Ali, “is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it.”

Our dependence on these

foreign goods leads us to our slavish respect for numbers.

He who knows that power is inborn, that he is weak because he has looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and so perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, instantly rights himself, stands in the erect position, commands his limbs, works miracles; just as a man who stands on his feet is stronger than a man who stands on his head.

So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it.

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

5 thoughts on “Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson”

  1. Are you kidding? A post on Emerson and no comments yet! Are we anachronisms? I have just finished editing my father’s book–a historical fiction about Emerson and a few other characters…Mark Twain among them. I’m sending you the book when it’s out.

    I read, and re-read that essay so many times I thought I’d found a new bible.

    “Beware when the great god lets loose a thinker on this planet.”


  2. I am not American and Waldo Emerson was nobody for me until recently. Until I stumbled on his quote about principles:
    “As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

    Love from the first quote.

    Great post especially the bottom line 🙂

    Happy New Year!!

  3. Steve, it almost seems that today’s entrepreneur might be near to Emerson’s nonconformist. Thanks for sharing the real gems of Emerson’s still timely thoughts!

  4. I sometimes hear myself saying; I gave up all serious attempts at reading to gain knowledge a dozen years ago. I imagined at the time; I had learned enough to hopefully allow me; to use what I’d learned to piece together life’s mysteries on my own. I even gave up my small library of books. I remember around that same time a dozen years ago; scrolling through the pages of a book on Emerson. It did not peak my interest at the time. Yet the depth of thought, within many of the passages in your essay was startling. I believe each one of us is a sovereign being, where society is (a mirror representation of ourselves as well as) an aspect of our environment; and ones principles are determined by ones appropriate orientation to said environment…..
    Anyways, thanks for the great reintroduction to Emerson!

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