Self-Reliance and Bravery Ralph Waldo Emerson's Famous Term Paper

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Self-Reliance and Bravery

Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay "Self-Reliance" revolves around two key ideas: conformity and consistency. Emerson says that in order for an individual to be self-reliant, he or she must come to terms with these two ideas. The individual must fight a brave battle and be courageous to be successful in achieving self-reliance. Bravery is a two fold process for Emerson. First, the individual must be brave internally and understand what he or she wants. Secondly, the individual must be willing to brave the external criticism of society while pursuing his or her own path in life.

The first battle requires that the person knows him or herself very well. The first few pages of the essay are concerned with trusting oneself. Emerson says that individuals must "believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius" (Emerson 147). The rudimentary step in the process of bravery is to understand what is in one's heart and understand what it is that an individual believes to be true.

Emerson says that all great men have already done so. These great men have trusted their innermost hearts which Emerson sees as a reflection of the divine being.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string...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." (Emerson 148)

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Emerson believed that if the individual was brave and honest what he or she understood about the world would be the truth. If people can achieve that, then the power that is working through them is part of the divine soul that Emerson would have called the oversoul. People can connect to the oversoul according to Emerson's essay "Nature" when they have a moment of mystical understanding (Lewis). This is the highest achievement and Emerson believes that people must be brave and sincere to reach it (Lewis).

Term Paper on Self-Reliance and Bravery Ralph Waldo Emerson's Famous Assignment

If people are brave and sincere, they will naturally know that they have goodness in their hearts. Emerson tells the story of when he was a young boy and an elder asked him a religious question. Emerson questioned the validity of an external question when as he says "What have I to do with the sacredness of tradition, if I live wholly from within?" (Emerson 149). The elder questioned Emerson as to how he would know if his impulses came from hell. Emerson answered, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil" (Emerson 150). It seems that Emerson understood himself and was able to trust himself from a very young age. Then, through his writing he tries to get others to do the same.

Finding the bravery within oneself to be self-reliant and think independently is only half of the problem. People must then face the opposition of the world. This is where bravery becomes a necessity. At this point in the essay, Emerson launches into a tirade about conformity because, as he recognizes, it is difficult to be an individual in the face of society. "It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude" (Emerson 151). As difficult as this is to do, Emerson says it is a necessity because "conforming to usages that have become dead to you...scatters your force" (Emerson 151). People become weak in the face of society if they do not first know who they are.

Emerson recognizes how brave the individual will have to be an individual in the face of society. To go against the expectations of society will be terribly challenging. "For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure"

Emerson 152). Facing the "sour face" of society will be the greatest challenge to the nonconformist. Emerson's description of society is quite unflattering in this section. Emerson makes a distinction between a brave man being an individual in the face of the educated or "cultivated" classes with maintaining that same level of bravery against "the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society" (Emerson 152). This is a much more formidable force that Emerson says will take "the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment" (Emerson 152).

It is not other people of sense and education that the individual must face so bravely, but the mass of humanity that may be uneducated and prejudice. These are the people who are quick to form judgments and threaten to not understand the individual.

It is here in the essay that Emerson ties the idea of consistency to conformity and bravery. Emerson argues that being concerned about remaining consistent in actions and words is a waste of time. This re-connects to the idea of trusting oneself. Emerson questions the value of being consistent if a person has really changed his or her mind about something. "Why drag about the corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?" (Emerson 152). If a person has truly changed his or mind, then it is fine and right to express that.

In one of the more famous passages of this essay, Emerson writes:

foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statement and philosophers and divines...Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it may contradict everything you said today." (Emerson 153)

The individual must be tough enough to brave what society will say and the individual must understand him or herself. If that is the case, what society thinks is immaterial.

Self-reliance is all about understanding individual beliefs and being brave enough to act upon them. "Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now" (Emerson 153). People who understand themselves need not worry about conforming to the whims of society and need not fear inconsistencies in their beliefs if they have internal understanding.

This is all part of the journey of becoming self-reliant. In another essay called "An American Scholar," Emerson attacks the idea of people who do not think for themselves, but only rely on the learning of others (Haines). "Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage" (Emerson 157). The same ideas are then just re-circulated throughout the world without anyone applying any genuine thought. Emerson calls on everyone who reads this to engage in genuine thought (Haines). He admits that it will be challenging both internally and externally, but he views it as paramount to being a thinking human being.

Even Emerson recognizes that sometimes the individual will fail. In a section that might surprise some readers, Emerson criticizes charity. He is not insulting charity for charity's sake. However, he is saying that people fail in their attempts to achieve self-reliance in the face of the many charities that exist. If the charity is not something that a person believes in, the person should be under no obligation to contribute. Nevertheless, society pressures individuals, imposes guilt on them until they do contribute. Emerson says, "I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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