Summary and Analysis of Self-Reliance
In the final third of "Self-Reliance," Emerson considers the benefits to society of the kind of self-reliance he has been describing. His examination of society demonstrates the need for a morality of self-reliance, and he again criticizes his contemporary Americans for being followers rather than original thinkers. Condemning the timidity of most young people, whose greatest fear is failure, he levels his complaint especially at urban, educated youths, unfavorably comparing them with a hypothetical farm lad, who engages himself in many occupations largely self-taught and entrepreneurial. The comparison between the city youths and the country fellow is to be expected given the quality of life Emerson traditionally assigns to each environment. Of no surprise is his favoring the bucolic life.
Emerson now focuses on four social arenas in which self-reliant individuals are needed: religion, which fears creativity; culture, which devalues individualism; the arts, which teach us only to imitate; and society, which falsely values so-called progress.
Religion, Emerson says, could benefit from a good dose of self-reliance because self-reliance turns a person's mind from petty, self-centered desires to a benevolent wish for the common good. Religion's main problem is its fear of individual creativity. As a consequence, it opts for the art of mimicry: "Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother's, or his brother's brother's God." Any religion can introduce new ideas and systems of thought to an individual, but religious creeds are dangerous because they substitute a set of ready answers for the independent thought required of the self-reliant person.
Although we might question Emerson's relating travel — or culture — to religion, both substitute an external source of wisdom for an individual's inner wisdom. The person who travels "with the hope of finding [something] greater than he knows . . . travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things." The reference to youth reminds us that the self-reliant individual is childlike and original, whereas a person who travels for the wrong reasons creates nothing new and chooses instead to be surrounded by "old things."
The urge to travel is a symptom, according to Emerson, of our educational system's failure: Because schools teach us only to imitate, too often we travel to experience others' works of art rather than create them ourselves. In "The American Scholar," Emerson advises young scholars to break with European literary traditions.
Likewise, in "Self-Reliance," he addresses American artists with many of the same arguments: "Beauty, convenience, grandeur of thought, and quaint expression are as near to us as to any," if only American artisans would consider "the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of the government."
Emerson's criticism of society, and especially its ill-conceived notion of progress, differs from his earlier comments on the subject. The progression of ideas symbolized in the zigzag line of a ship is not what he is addressing here. He is arguing that society does not necessarily improve from material changes. For example, advances in technology result in the loss of certain kinds of wisdom: The person who has a watch loses the ability to tell time by the sun's position in the sky, and improvements in transportation and war machinery are not accompanied by corresponding improvements in either the physical or mental stature of human beings. The most effective image for this static nature of society is the wave. A wave moves in and out from the shoreline, but the water that composes it does not; changes occur in society, but "society never advances."
The last two paragraphs of "Self-Reliance" are a critique of property and fortune. Emerson castigates reliance on property, as he earlier attacked reliance on the thinking of others, as a means to a full life. Rather than admiring property, the cultivated man is ashamed of it, especially of property that is not acquired by honest work. Respect for property leads to a distortion of political life: Society is corrupted by people who regard government as primarily a protector of property rather than of persons.
Finally, Emerson urges the individual to be a risk taker. No external event, he says, whether good or bad, will change the individual's basic self-regard. "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles." Self-reliance, then, is the triumph of a principle.