Summary and Analysis of Self-Reliance
Paragraphs 18-32 - Self-Reliance and the Individual
The second section of "Self-Reliance" offers more suggestions for the individual who wants to achieve the desirable quality of self-reliance. Emerson begins with a directive: "Let a man then know his worth, and keep things under his feet." Material objects, especially those that are imposing — Emerson cites magnificent buildings and heroic works of art, including costly books — often intimidate people by making them feel of lesser worth. This feeling of inferiority is a mistake: Humans determine an object's worth, not vice versa. Emerson illustrates this point by relating a fable of a drunkard who is brought in off the street and treated like a royal personage; the unthinking individual is like the drunkard, living only half awake, until he comes to his senses by exercising reason and discovers that he is actually a prince.
One cause for our not exercising reason is the uncritical manner in which we read. Complaining that we often enjoy reading about the exploits of famous people while ignoring or devaluing books about ordinary righteousness and virtue, Emerson asks why people view the acts of well-known individuals as more important than the behavior of ordinary citizens, even though the good or bad behavior of ordinary people can have effects as noble or as dire as the actions of the powerful. Condemning European monarchies, he considers why royalty is accorded exaggerated respect despite the equal importance of common people; he can reason only that ordinary people respect royalty in recognition that a king or a queen represents the "royal" nature of every person, an argument he rejects outright.
Given the inferiority that an individual can feel when confronted by conformity and consistency, and now commonality, Emerson wonders how people remain confident in their abilities. The answer is provided by "that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct." The wisdom that springs from spontaneous instinct is Intuition, or inner knowledge from directly apprehending an object. All other knowledge is mere tuition, secondhand beliefs received from others instead of a uniquely individual response that was sparked by the source itself. This notion of Intuition is closely related to a main idea of transcendentalism: An all-encompassing "soul" animates the universe and is the source of all wisdom and inspiration. Direct knowledge, or intuition, is gained as a gift from this overwhelming source. But exactly what Emerson means by "Intuition" and "soul" is difficult to grasp, even for him: "If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or its absence is all we can affirm."
Emerson now introduces a contrasting idea to the portrait he has drawn of the intuitive individual: the characteristics and behavior of the "thoughtless man," who cannot see the depth of truth being used by the self-reliant, intuitive person. Thoughtless people cannot understand self-reliant individuals' seeming inconsistencies because thoughtless people are too worried about being consistent — as society oppressively wants them to be.
Transcendence is gained only through intuitive knowledge. Describing this transcendent quality is difficult, Emerson says, because we have no concrete words for such an abstract state of mind. It is beyond language and can be conveyed only in negatives, by telling what it is not: "And now at last the highest truth of this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition." This type of understanding does not come from any teacher or intermediary; moreover, it reaches deeper than any kind of emotion, such as hope, gratitude, or even joy.
Attempting to relate transcendence to what he has been saying about self-reliance, Emerson emphasizes the important process of eternally evolving for the better. The self-reliant individual is not beholden to society: Although society may remain stagnant, the individual constantly changes, growing more virtuous and noble. This person gains something that others in society do not: namely, the knowledge — and, by extension, the power — of the permeating spirit that animates all things, be they natural objects — plants, animals, or trees — or social activities — for example, commerce or war.
In the paragraphs leading up to this section's conclusion, Emerson moves from analysis to exhortation, offering suggestions on how we should act. Although everyone can become a model of self-reliance for the improvement of society, he asserts that "we" — the lazy, non-self-reliant individuals — are a "mob." Too many people, he says, are led by suggestions, by desires, and by feelings of responsibility. Instead of practicing independent self-reliance, we give in to others' demands. He urges us to place truth before politeness, value integrity more than comfort, and abandon hypocrisy in favor of honesty. Acknowledging that the self-reliant individual risks being misunderstood as merely selfish or self-indulgent, he vows that individuals who rigorously follow their consciences will be more "godlike" than individuals who follow society's laws.