Individualism in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

Lesson sponsored by  Bank of America

Advisor: Charles Capper, Professor of History, Boston University; National Humanities Center Fellow
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2014

In his essay “Self-Reliance,” how does Ralph Waldo Emerson define individualism, and how, in his view, can it affect society?

Understanding

In “Self-Reliance” Emerson defines individualism as a profound and unshakeable trust in one’s own intuitions. Embracing this view of individualism, he asserts, can revolutionize society, not through a sweeping mass movement, but through the transformation of one life at a time and through the creation of leaders capable of greatness.

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878

Text

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”, 1841.

Text Type

Essay, Literary nonfiction.

Text Complexity

Grade 11-CCR complexity band. For more information on text complexity see these resources from achievethecore.org.

In the Text Analysis section, Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.

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Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.4 (Determine the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases.)
  • ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1 (Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as drawing inferences.)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 4.1 – II.A. (…Romantic beliefs in human perfectibility fostered the rise of voluntary organizations to promote religious and secular reforms…)
  • Key Concept 4.1 – III.A. (A new national culture emerged…that combined European forms with local and regional cultural sensibilities.)
  • Skill Type III: Skill 7 (Analyze features of historical evidence such as audience, purpose, point of view…)

Advanced Placement English Language and Composition

  • Reading nonfiction
  • Evaluating, using, and citing primary sources
  • Writing in several forms about a variety of subjects

Teacher’s Note

“Self-Reliance” is central to understanding Emerson’s thought, but it can be difficult to teach because of its vocabulary and sentence structure. This lesson offers a thorough exploration of the essay. The text analysis focuses on Emerson’s definition of individualism, his analysis of society, and the way he believes his version of individualism can transform — indeed, save — American society.

The first interactive exercise addresses vocabulary challenges. The second, well-suited for individual or small group work, presents some of his more famous aphorisms as tweets from Dr. Ralph, a nineteenth-century self-help guru, and asks students to interpret and paraphrase them. The third invites students to consider whether they would embrace Dr. Ralph’s vision of life. It explores paragraph 7, the most well-developed in the essay and the only one that shows Emerson interacting with other people to any substantial degree. The exercise is designed to raise questions about the implications of Emersonian self-reliance for one’s relations with others, including family, friends, and the broader society. The excerpt illustrates critic’s Louis Menand’s contention, cited in the background note, that Emerson’s essays, although generally taken as affirmations, are “deeply unconsoling.”

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, access to the interactive exercises, and a follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive worksheet that can be e-mailed, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide

Background

Background Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. For what audience was it intended?
  3. For what purpose was it written?
  4. When was it written?
  5. What was going on at the time of its writing that might have influenced its composition?

Ralph Waldo Emerson died in 1882, but he is still very much with us. When you hear people assert their individualism, perhaps in rejecting help from the government or anyone else, you hear the voice of Emerson. When you hear a self-help guru on TV tell people that if they change their way of thinking, they will change reality, you hear the voice of Emerson. He is America’s apostle of individualism, our champion of mind over matter, and he set forth the core of his thinking in his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841).

While they influence us today, Emerson’s ideas grew out of a specific time and place, which spawned a philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. “Self-Reliance” asserts a central belief in that philosophy: truth lies in our spontaneous, involuntary intuitions. We do not have the space here to explain Transcendentalism fully, but we can sketch some out its fundamental convictions, a bit of its historical context, and the way “Self-Reliance” relates to it.

By the 1830s many in New England, especially the young, felt that the religion they had inherited from their Puritan ancestors had become cold and impersonal. In their view it lacked emotion and failed to foster that sense of connectedness to the divine which they sought in religion. To them it seemed that the church had taken its eyes off heaven and fixed them on the material world, which under the probings, measurements, and observations of science seemed less and less to offer assurance of divine presence in the world.

Taking direction from ancient Greek philosophy and European thinking, a small group of New England intellectuals embraced the idea that men and women did not need churches to connect with divinity and that nature, far from being without spiritual meaning, was, in fact, a realm of symbols that pointed to divine truths. According to these preachers and writers, we could connect with divinity and understand those symbols — that is to say, transcend or rise above the material world — simply by accepting our own intuitions about God, nature, and experience. These insights, they argued, needed no external verification; the mere fact that they flashed across the mind proved they were true.

To hold these beliefs required enormous self-confidence, of course, and this is where Emerson and “Self-Reliance” come into the picture. He contends that there is within each of us an “aboriginal Self,” a first or ground-floor self beyond which there is no other. In “Self-Reliance” he defines it in mystical terms as the “deep force” through which we “share the life by which things exist.” It is “the fountain of action and thought,” the source of our spontaneous intuitions. This self defines not a particular, individual identity but a universal, human identity. When our insights derive from it, they are valid not only for us but for all humankind. Thus we can be assured that what is true in our private hearts is, as Emerson asserts, “true for all men.”*

But how can we tell if our intuitions come from the “aboriginal Self” and are, therefore, true? We cannot. Emerson says we must have the self-trust to believe that they do and follow them as if they do. If, indeed, they are true, eventually everyone will accept them, and they will be “rendered back to us” as “the universal sense.”

Daguerrotype of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daguerrotype of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Until the rest of the world accepts our beliefs, however, we will be out of step; we will be nonconformists. Emerson tells us not to worry. The essence of self-reliance is resistance to conformity. Indeed, nonconformity is a sign of strength: “Whoso would be a man,” he writes, “must be a nonconformist.” In a sense “Self-Reliance” can be seen as a pep talk designed to strengthen our resolve to stand up to society’s efforts to make us conform. “Nothing,” Emerson thunders, “is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” This is individualism in the extreme.

While “Self-Reliance” deals extensively with theological matters, we cannot overlook its political significance. It appeared in 1841, just four years after President Andrew Jackson left office. In the election of 1828 Jackson forged an alliance among the woodsmen and farmers of the western frontier and the laborers of eastern cities. (See the America in Class® lesson “The Expansion of Democracy during the Jacksonian Era.”) Emerson opposed the Jacksonians over specific policies, chiefly their defense of slavery and their support for the expulsion of Indians from their territories. But he objected to them on broader grounds as well. Many people like Emerson, who despite his noncomformist thought still held many of the political views of the old New England elite from which he sprang, feared that the rise of the Jacksonian electorate would turn American democracy into mob rule. In fact, at one point in “Self-Reliance” he proclaims “now we are a mob.” When you see the word “mob” here, do not picture a large, threatening crowd. Instead, think of what we today would call mass society, a society whose culture and politics are shaped not by the tastes and opinions of a small, narrow elite but rather by those of a broad, diverse population.

Emerson opposed mass-party politics because it was based on nothing more than numbers and majority rule, and he was hostile to mass culture because it was based on manufactured entertainments. Both, he believed, distracted people from the real questions of spiritual health and social justice. Like some critics today, he believed that mass society breeds intellectual mediocrity and conformity. He argued that it produces soft, weak men and women, more prone to whine and whimper than to embrace great challenges. Emerson took as his mission the task of lifting people out of the mass and turning them into robust, sturdy individuals who could face life with confidence. While he held out the possibility of such transcendence to all Americans, he knew that not all would respond. He assured those who did that they would achieve greatness and become “guides, redeemers, and benefactors” whose personal transformations and leadership would rescue democracy. Thus if “Self-Reliance” is a pep talk in support for nonconformists, it is also a manual on how to live for those who seek to be individuals in a mass society.

Describing “Self-Reliance” as a pep talk and a manual re-enforces the way most people have read the essay, as a work of affirmation and uplift, and there is much that is affirmative and uplifting in it. Yet a careful reading also reveals a darker side to Emerson’s self-reliance. His uncompromising embrace of nonconformity and intellectual integrity can breed a chilly arrogance, a lack of compassion, and a lonely isolation. That is why one critic has called Emerson’s work “deeply unconsoling.”1 In this lesson we explore this side of Emerson along with his bracing optimism.

A word about our presentation. Because readers can take “Self-Reliance” as an advice manual for living and because Emerson was above all a teacher, we found it engaging to cast him not as Ralph Waldo Emerson, a nineteenth-century philosopher, but as Dr. Ralph, a twenty-first-century self-help guru. In the end we ask if you would embrace his approach to life and sign up for his tweets.

*Teacher’s Note: For a more detailed discussion of the “aboriginal Self,” see pp. 65-67 in Lawrence Buell’s Emerson.


1. Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001) p. 18.

Text Analysis

Paragraph 1

Close Reading Questions

Activity: VocabularyActivity: Vocabulary
Learn definitions by exploring how words are used in context.

What is important about the verses written by the painter in sentence 1?
They “were original and not conventional.”

From evidence in this paragraph, what do you think Emerson means by “original”?
He defines “original” in sentence 6 when he says that we value the work of Moses, Plato, and Milton because they said not what others have thought, but what they thought.

In sentences 2 and 3 how does Emerson suggest we should read an “original” work?
He suggests that we should read it with our souls. We should respond more to the sentiment of the work rather than to its explicit content.

In telling us how to read an original work, what do you think Emerson is telling us about reading his work?
In sentences 2 and 3 Emerson is telling us how to read “Self-Reliance” and his work in general. We should attend more to its sentiment, its emotional impact, rather than to the thought it may contain. The reason for this advice will become apparent as we discover that Emerson’s essays are more collections of inspirational, emotionally charged sentences than logical arguments.

How does Emerson define genius?
He defines it as possessing the confident belief that what is true for you is true for all people.

Considering this definition of genius, what does Emerson mean when he says that “the inmost in due time becomes the outmost”?
Since the private or “inmost” truth we discover in our hearts is true for all men and women, it will eventually be “rendered back to us,” proclaimed, as an “outmost” or public truth.

Why, according to Emerson, do we value Moses, Plato, and Milton?
We value them because they ignored the wisdom of the past (books and traditions) and spoke not what others thought but what they thought, the “inmost” truth they discovered in their own hearts. They are great because they transformed their “inmost” truth to “outmost” truth.

Thus far Emerson has said that we should seek truth by looking into our own hearts and that we, like such great thinkers as Moses, Plato, and Milton, should ignore what we find in books and in the learning of the past. What implications does his advice hold for education?
It diminishes the importance of education and suggests that formal education may actually get in the way of our search for knowledge and truth.

Why then should we bother to study “great works of art” or even “Self-Reliance” for that matter?
Because great works of art “teach us to abide by our spontaneous impressions.” And that is, of course, precisely what “Self-Reliance” is doing. Both they and this essay reassure us that our “latent convictions” are, indeed, “universal sense.” They strengthen our ability to maintain our individualism in the face of “the whole cry of voices” who oppose us “on the other side.”

Based on your reading of paragraph 1, how does Emerson define individualism? Support your answer with reference to specific sentences.
Emerson defines individualism as a profound and unshakeable trust in one’s own intuitions. Just about any sentence from 4 through 11 could be cited as support.

[1] I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. [2] The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. [3] The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. [4] 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. [5] Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, — and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. [6] Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. [7] 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. [8] Yet he dismisses without notice his 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. [9] Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. [10] They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most [especially] when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. [11] Else [otherwise], to-morrow 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.

Paragraph 34 (excerpt)

Close Reading Questions

Activity: Dr. Ralph's TweetsActivity: Dr. Ralph’s Tweets
Decipher Emerson’s aphorisms.

Note: Every good self-help guru offers advice on how to handle failure, and in the excerpt from paragraph 35 Dr. Ralph does that by describing his ideal of a self-reliant young man. Here we see Dr. Ralph at perhaps his most affirmative, telling his followers what self-reliance can do for them. Before he does that, however, he offers, in paragraph 34, his diagnosis of American society in 1841. The example of his “sturdy lad” in paragraph 35 suggests what self-reliance can do for society, a theme he picks up in paragraph 36.

What, according to Emerson, is wrong with the “social state” of America in 1841?
Americans have become weak, shy, and fearful, an indication of its true problem: it is no longer capable of producing “great and perfect persons.”

Given the political context in which he wrote “Self-Reliance,” why might Emerson think that American society was no longer capable of producing “great and perfect persons”?
In Emerson’s view, by giving power to the “mob,” Jacksonian democracy weakened American culture and gave rise to social and personal mediocrity.

What is Emerson’s solution for America’s problem, and how does that solution illuminate what he is trying to do in “Self-Reliance”?
His solution is to create “men and women who shall renovate life and our social state,” and this is the goal of his essay.

[1] The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. [2] We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. [3] Our age yields no great and perfect persons. [4] 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 [needs], have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force [aim at goals they cannot achieve], and do lean and beg day and night continually…. [5] We are parlour soldiers. [6] We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.

Paragraph 35 (excerpt)

Close Reading Questions

What does Emerson mean by “miscarry”? What context clues help us discover that meaning?
Here “miscarry” means “to fail.” We can see that by noting the parallel structure of the first two sentences. Emerson parallels “miscarry” and “fails” by placing them in the same position in the first two sentences: “If our young men miscarry…” “If the young merchant fails,…”

What is the relationship between the young men who miscarry and the young merchants who fail in paragraph 35 and the “timorous, desponding whimperers” of paragraph 34?
They are the same. The young failures illustrate the point Emerson makes in the previous paragraph about the weakness of America and its citizens.

According to Emerson, how does an “un-self-reliant” person respond to failure?
He despairs and becomes weak. He loses “loses heart” and feels “ruined.” He falls into self-pity and complains for years.

Emerson structures this paragraph as a comparison between a “city doll” and a “sturdy lad.” With reference to paragraph 34 what does the “sturdy lad” represent?
He represents the kind of person Emerson wants to create, the kind of person who will “renovate” America’s “life and social state.”

What are the connotations of “city doll”?
The term suggests weakness with a hint of effeminacy.

Compare a “city doll” with a “sturdy lad.”
City Doll: defeated by failure, urban, narrows his options by studying for a profession, learns from books, postpones life, lacks confidence and self-trust.
Sturdy Lad: resilient, rural, at least expert in rural skills, “teams it, farms it”, realizes he has many options and takes advantage of them, learns from experience, engages life, possesses confidence, trusts himself.

What point does Emerson make with this comparison?
Here Emerson is actually trying to persuade his readers to embrace his version of self-reliance. His comparison casts the “sturdy lad” in a positive light. We want to be like him, not like a “city doll.” Emerson suggests that, through the sort of men and women exemplified by the “sturdy lad,” self-reliance will rescue American life and society from weakness, despair, and defeat and restore its capacity for greatness.

What do you notice about the progression of the jobs Emerson assigns to his “sturdy lad”?
They ascend in wealth, prestige, and influence from plow hand to member of Congress.

We have seen that Emerson hopes to raise above the mob people who will themselves be “great and perfect persons” and restore America’s ability to produce such people. What does the progression of jobs he assigns to the “sturdy lad” suggest about the roles these people will play in American society?
As teachers, preachers, editors, congressmen, and land owners, they will be the leaders and opinion makers of American society.

[1] If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. [2] 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. [3] 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. [4] 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.


*Emerson does not mean that the “sturdy lad” would buy a town. He probably means that he would buy a large piece of uninhabited land (townships in New England were six miles square). The point here is that he would become a substantial landowner.

Paragraph 36

Close Reading Questions

Activity: Living the Self-Reliant LifeActivity: Living the Self-Reliant Life
Explore Emerson’s advice on how to live the self-reliant life.

Why does Emerson think that “a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men”?
On one level Emerson is suggesting that when individuals become self-reliant, their new found power will bring fresh strength and robustness to everything from their work to their family life. When individuals change, institutions change. On another level, he is suggesting that as leaders in American society, the newly empowered self-reliant will bring about social change.

[1] 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.

Follow-Up Assignment

In a well organized essay explain what society would be like if everyone embraced Emerson’s idea of self-reliance. Your analysis should focus on Emerson’s attitudes toward law, the family, and education. Be sure to use specific examples from the text to support your argument.


Vocabulary Pop-Ups

  • admonition: gentle, friendly criticism
  • latent: hidden
  • naught: ignored
  • lustre: brightness
  • firmament: sky
  • bards: poets
  • sages: wise men and women
  • alienated: made unfamiliar by being separated from us
  • else: otherwise
  • sinew: connective tissues
  • timorous: shy
  • desponding: discouraging
  • renovate: change
  • miscarry: fail
  • modes: styles
  • speculative: theoretical

Images:

  • Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson engraved and published by Stephen A. Schoff, Newtonville, Massachusetts, 1878, from an original drawing by Samuel W. Rowse [ca. 1858] in the possession of Charles Eliot Norton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-pga-04133.
  • Daguerreotype of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 4 x 5 black-and-white negative, creator unknown. Courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

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Average rating:  
 6 reviews
by Ruth Pineiro on America in Class
Cool Tweets

I liked how the author captured Emerson's aphorisms as tweets and had the students write their own tweets. Great way to scaffold the instruction for low-level readers!

by Gale Carter on America in Class
Deep reflection of progressive thoughts

I felt that this lesson was great for an advanced Literature class. The reading was very challenging. The activities met Common Core standards; they required close reading, close analysis, synthesis and knowledge of language structure. It also used nonfiction text of a classic American writer and philosopher who lived and wrote about early 19th Century America. It combined this classic piece with 21st Century mode of communication - very engaging! My only concern is the high degree of difficulty of the text.

by Shanna Fox on America in Class

I loved everything about this lesson, until I got to the interactive tweet activity. I purposely didn't answer some of the matching responses correctly, and it would not let me advance. It didn't tell me which ones I had wrong or even how many - just that the response was incorrect. I wish this could be adjusted. Other than that, the breadth of the material presented, from vocabulary to contextual explanations to aphorisms, was absolutely fantastic. The vocabulary focus and interactive activities, as well as the discussion questions, make the text accessible to more than just a high school / college audience, which I didn't expect to be the case. I thought that it would be like many resources that encourage analysis of complex historical documents - almost as "over the heads" of my 8th graders as the text itself. But that was not the case at all! Thank you for this AWESOME resource. Maybe adjust the interactive features to give a little more specific feedback? Then, it would be PERFECT.

by Kymberli Bryant on America in Class
Close Reading of a Classic Essay

Any time we can lead students through a close reading of a complicated text, everyone wins. I have taught "Self-Reliance" in the past to students of various levels. Even for my upper level students, the text is weighty, but for my lower-level students, it is nearly impossible. Having the text 'chunked' with close reading questions for each section, provides students with manageable content and leads them through the essay in a way that elicits understanding beyond the usual. The lesson starts with what is essentially a SOAPS activity, preparing students to understand the context of the piece. The student version gives appropriate historical background and space for students to write as they go, supporting the idea that students should closely read each paragraph and answer the questions for understanding before moving on. Then, the lesson includes multimedia activities for students to explore in order to further understanding. This is the type of lesson I normally do with my students, but having it all in an easy to use format simplifies it for me. I will definitely be using this lesson whenever I teach Emerson in the future.

by Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick on America in Class
On Individualism in Ralph Waldo Emerson

This lesson prepares the instructor--even at the college level--to teach Emerson. It provides important context, explanations, and glosses of Emerson's dense but famous essay. Emerson's work is challenging for students, even at the college level, because his writing does not appear to be transparent or follow the form of a logical, traditional argument. This lesson provides openings and important instruction into how to approach AND understand Emerson. It is designed in such a way that students (and professors/teachers) have the tools they need to engage with his philosophical ideas, as well as with his style and rhetoric. Indeed, this lesson makes Emerson relevant by requiring students to consider and then respond to the basic tenets of "Self-Reliance." The nod to Twitter in the activity is creative and fun. My only suggestion would be to consider in what ways Emerson and his ideas and work have come to occupy a hallowed space in American culture and the American literary imagination.

by Tara Fee on America in Class
Excellent historical context and connections with (our) contemporary culture

I've been teaching "Self-Reliance" for many years in a survey on American Lit to 1865, and I find a few consistent challenges. First, it's often difficult to help students see that ideas they take for granted were part of an intellectual revolution, and second, when they do realize that Emerson's view of individualism was revolutionary, they tend to imagine all thought before his as hopelessly conformist and primitive. I like the way this lesson helps students see the ways in which the questions Emerson engages were significant and remain live, and I think the close-reading questions direct students' attention to useful parts of the text. I thought the reference to Twitter was fun--Twitter seems like exactly the right medium to use to have students think about promulgating and deconstructing assertions of individualism.