Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self
Transcript Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson's Early Life
• Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25th, 1803 right
here in Boston.
He was the fourth out of eight children, and at the age
of eight, his father died. This resulted in severe poverty
for Emerson, and on some days the family would have
nothing to eat.
• Although he was poor, his social status and family
history led him to attend Harvard at the age of 14.
• At Harvard, he kept a journal with him at all times,
which he would not only write in, but also draw
pictures and illustrations because he desired to be a
• He graduated college at 18, and with the pressure of his
Aunt Mary to become a minister, he attended Harvard
Emerson's Early Life Cont
•He fell ill in fall of 1826, and moved to South Carolina and
• In 1829, he became the associate minister at the Second
church in Boston, and in the same year he married Ellen
• The next year, Emerson became the full minister and
rather than preaching from the biblical texts, he used
some of his own ideas to spice up the presentations.
• After the death of his wife in 1831, Emerson resigned as
minister because he started doubting God and started his
tour in Europe, where he wrote about his affairs in
Nature (1836): Transcendentalist and very "American"
ideas.The ideas were so radical at the time, that Emerson
originally published it anonymously.
Self-Reliance (1841): The need for the individual to avoid
conformity, to have original ideas, and to avoid false
consistency. His ideas were very new at the time.
Over-soul (1841): All humans are connected through a
"universal" soul. People must transcend themselves to
understand and accept views of the world.
The American Scholar (1837): Delivered this speech to the Phi
Beta Kappa Society oration at Harvard in 1837. The address
praised individualism and humanized Jesus. Emerson's ideas
were very controversial at the time because they went against
Christian orthodox ideas. He wasn't invited back to Harvard
for another 30 years.
• System of lecturing that
developed in the 1920's and 1930's
• Local lecture clubs paid for
speakers to come, Emerson
• Spoke about non-traditional
ideas and sometimes baffled
• Offered lecturing courses
once he became popular
• These lectures grew into
essays and books which he
published often beginning in
• Made a respectable salary
Style of “Self Reliance”
• Essay is a carefully constructed rational argument with
goal of persuading readers to adopt ideas Emerson
Author uses logic, reasons, facts, and examples to
support his position.
Emerson organizes his ideas so that they lead
readers step by step to the conclusion he wishes
them to reach.
He begins by defining genius and explains why he
believes every human being possesses it. He goes on
to explain how and why this genius is to be
expressed –the expression of that inborn genius is
the essence of self reliance.
•Emerson’s tight rational argument is
complemented by energetic and passionate
language that appeals to readers’ emotions.
• He uses the effective technique of using
images from nature.
References to Persons and Literature
•“Self-Reliance” is studded with a multitude
of references to famous men and well-known
• Men mentioned are held up as examples of
self-reliance and of the greatness it brings.
• There are several biblical references.
Themes and Style in Self-Reliance
• Believe in yourself
Believe in your own convictions
• Self-Helping Man
No outside help
• Human Nature (soul, spirit, etc.)
• Nature (plants, sea, etc.)
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self- Reliance (1841)
Self reliance can be defined as the bringing into the light one’s inner views
on what is true and meaningful, and in the process enriching an entire
community through diversity.
• “The power which resided in him is new in nature, and none but he knows
what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he tries.”
Emerson calls for greater self-reliance, “a new respect for the divinity in
man,” bringing “revolutionary” change in all relations – religion and
prayer, education and literature, pursuits, modes of living, property and
views, and associations.
In Emerson’s time, America still looked to Europe for its art,
architecture, literature, instead of developing it’s own. He believed that
by adopting the talent of another, one could only claim only half
possession. He was critical of Americans for not using their God-given
individuality to become more than mere imitators
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self- Reliance
True happiness and fulfillment can only come through a recognition of
one’s own uniqueness, talent and effort.
• Envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide. It’s only when a person puts his
heart into his work and does his best that he is truly happy and at peace.
Do not be ashamed to speak your unique thoughts, “divine idea[s]”
rather than quoting the words of some former “saint or sage”. Roses
do not make reference to former roses, but “exist [perfectly] with God
Actions should be genuine, honest and natural. Don’t be afraid of
being inconsistent -- genuine action will explain itself over time, just
as the zigzag path of a ship’s voyage seen over a distance straightens
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self- Reliance
Truth comes from within and lies beyond or “transcends” the knowledge
we obtain from our senses. Trust in the truth, in your intuition.
• Accept your place in the world and do not cower in a corner, hemmed in by
conformity. Be a nonconformist. An infant conforms to no one. The world
conforms to it.
Do not give to causes that you do not believe in, just because you feel
society expects it. Trust yourself.
There will be those who think they know your duty better than you do.
Do not be concerned about what others think. Trust that you have the
innate wisdom from God within.
Become intuitive and in touch with yourself. “Nothing is at last sacred
but the integrity of your own mind.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self- Reliance Main Points
Emerson advocates independence not only of thought but also of action.
Society continually changes, do not let these changes encumber your virtue.
•When a man builds a coach, he loses the use of his feet. If one
uses crutches, he loses muscle support. He wears a watch and
forgets how to tell time by the sun.
Emerson believed that reliance on property and the
government to protect it was a lack in self-reliance. Men have
looked away from themselves at things too long and now
measure each other by what he has not by what he is.
Emerson describes dependence on foreign goods as leading to
a “slavish respect for numbers.”
Emerson recognized men’s gamble with Fortune, gaining and
losing all, but concludes that nothing can bring you peace but
Literary Focus: Figures of Speech
•“Self-Reliance” is an essay that includes some striking figures of
•Figures of Speech are based on unusual comparisons
• They are not meant to be taken literally.
• For example: When Emerson says “Society is a joint-stock
company,” he is comparing society to a business.
• In a joint-stock company, all of the owners share the company’s
profits and losses equally.
• Emerson’s comparison points out that society is interested in
money and success.
• Figures of speech include similes, metaphors, and personification.
•Emerson is considered an American icon of Romanticism.
•Emerson’s philosophy as expressed in “Self-Reliance” largely overlaps
the ideas of romanticism, which include the inherent worth of the
individual, the importance of personal freedom from religious and social
restrictions, and the divinity of nature
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self- Reliance
•Self-Reliance , had a great impact on Emerson’s society, becoming his most
well-known essay. Self-Reliance, together with Nature, established Emerson as a
writer and lecturer. He became regarded as the founder of the Transcendental
movement, a distinctly American philosophy emphasizing optimism,
individuality, and mysticism. He was one of the most influential literary figures
of the nineteenth century.
As a result of the new philosophy introduced in Self-Reliance, America
developed literature and art uniquely different from any other country in the
world and established for the first time America’s place in the world of art
and literature. Emerson, through his writing of Self-Reliance, had an impact
on future generations also. He became an inspiration to such writers as Walt
Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. Today, portions of Self-Reliance have
been so quoted that many are now cliché. The philosophy of individual
independence has, to some extent, become the American way.
Self-Reliance had a significant impact not only on American writers and
artists, but also on Unitarians and the liberally religious opening them to
science, Eastern religions and a naturalistic mysticism. In addition to group
impact, Self-Reliance, had an impact on the individual American, inspiring
him to listen to and heed the still, small voice of God within.
The impact of Self-Reliance and the subsequent Transcendental movement
was one of supreme importance extending a challenge to Americans to use
their God-given talents for the betterment of the individual and thus the
community. It proved to be a positive, lasting, truly American change.
The Transcendental View
•Everything in the world, including human beings, is a reflection
of the Divine Soul.
•The physical facts of the natural world are a doorway to the
spiritual or ideal world.
•People can use their intuition to behold God’s spirit revealed in
nature or in their own souls
•Self- reliance and individualism must outweigh external
authority and blind conformity to custom and tradition.
•Spontaneous feelings and intuition are superior to deliberate
intellectualism and rationality
•Transcendentalism was based partly on the philosophy of
Idealism, which dated back to ancient Greece.
•It was based also on the ideas of American thinkers ranging
from the Puritans to the nineteenth-century Romantics.
•Transcendentalists viewed nature as a doorway to a mystical
world holding important truths.
1803 Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts.
1821: graduated from Harvard College.
1825: Went to Harvard Divinity School.
1829: Ordained as a junior pastor of Boston’s Second Church
1829: Married first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker.
1831: His wife Ellen died.
1832: Set out on a European tour.
1833: Gave his first public lecture.
1835: Remarried to Lydia Jackson.
1836: Published “Nature”, Led the foundation of “Transcendental Club”
1837:Delivered his now-famous Phi Beta Kappa address, “The American
befriended Henry David Thoreau, beginning of his career as a lecturer
1841: Published “Essays”, his second book.
1842: Releasedthe poem “Threnody” and the essay “Experience”
in the memory of his dead son.
1844:Published his second collection of essays,
1857: Wrote “English Traits”
1860: Published “The Conduct of Life”,
his final original collection of essays.
1862:Visited Washington D.C. and gave a
lecture at the Smithsonian
1882: Died in Concord, Massachusetts
DEPT. OF ENGLISH