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A Philosophy of Cheerfulness: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

The material courtesy of Jeannine M. Pitas

“There is nothing at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” asserts American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Trust thyself.” These famous aphorisms- which can be found on posters in schools and offices all across the United States-have served as an inspiration to many. However, while most Americans are familiar with these aphorisms from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”, fewer have read the essay from which they are taken. Though he embodied some of the characteristic American ideals, such as egalitarianism, optimism, and an unfailing belief in the sanctity of the individual, his tirades against the dangers of social conformity- particularly religious conformity- were controversial in his time and continue to be controversial today. His philosophy of Transcendentalism, though embodying many classic American values, was never adopted by mainstream American society. Nevertheless, Ralph Waldo Emerson still stands as one of our most unique and influential thinkers.

Born in Boston in 1803, Emerson was still a child when he experienced the death of his father, a highly respected Unitarian minister. At that moment the family was thrown into poverty, and even as a child he began teaching and tutoring in order to help make ends meet. At the age of fourteen Emerson attended Harvard College, where he was an average student, and after graduating he spent some years working as a schoolteacher before returning to study at Harvard Divinity School. At twenty-five he was ordained as a Unitarian minister, but a dispute with the church three years later led him to leave the ministry and begin a career as a traveling public speaker and lecturer. Around this time he traveled to England, where he met such prominent literary figures as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, who would become a lifelong friend. Upon returning to the United States, he and other New England intellectuals formed the Transcendental Club, an organization dedicated to promoting freedom of thought and an idealist approach to gaining knowledge as opposed to the conformist trends they observed in the intellectual arena that surrounded them.

When we think of Emerson’s Transcendentalism, one of the first ideas that comes to mind is his harangues against social conformism. “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,” Emerson tells us in “Self-Reliance.” “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion…Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist”(151). However, while Emerson stands vehemently against all tendencies to blindly follow the crowd and urges us to think for ourselves rather than conforming to the customs, opinions and attitudes of the majority, Emerson is not against society. And, while he believes that individuals have the have the capacity to reach knowledge of the truth independently, this does not mean that we are not subject to a higher moral law. For Emerson, truth is one and universal. However, each individual may and must apprehend that truth in his own unique way. “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,” he states (148). With this statement he echoes the ideas of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who established the principle of the categorical imperative, the idea that we should only commit actions that we would be willing to see transformed into a universal law for all. Although Emerson stresses personal liberation, he is by no means promoting self-absorbed individualism, but a great deal of social responsibility. “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles,” he affirms (171).

Nevertheless, it is very difficult for people to trust themselves. According to Emerson, one thing that precludes us from believing in the integrity of our own minds is our sense of smallness and inferiority. Comparing ourselves with the great schemes of history and with the so-called great men who have gone before us, we feel terribly insignificant. Emerson argues that this attitude is fundamentally wrong. These geniuses, rather than making us feel inferior, should inspire us to seek our own greatness. “Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every man is unique. The Scipionism of Scipio was precisely the part that he could not borrow. Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much”(168). Emerson seeks to show us that geniuses are not to be envied; rather, they embody the greatest degree of human potential- a kernel of which everyone possesses. We all have some degree of genius within; the goal is to discover it and bring it to fruition.

The other thing that keeps us from trusting ourselves is our preoccupation with consistency. We seek to make our thoughts agree with one another and to stand firmly for one clear, logically consistent idea. Emerson seeks to persuade us that such adherence to consistency has no value. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” he says. Speak what you think now with harsh words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in harsh words again, though it contradict everything you said today”(155). For Emerson there is no reason why we should not change our minds; rather than languishing in stasis by clinging to our ideas, we must be willing to embrace the new revelations that come to us. The important thing is to be firm in our convictions, even if we may change them, and to make sure we truly believe in the principles by which we claim to live.

With this dismissal of consistency Emerson affirms a principle that is central to American consciousness: that of newness, change and optimism. Emerson urges us to continue moving forward and seeking the new. In dropping our old beliefs, we are not creating new truths or randomly embracing new ideas that come into fashion, but moving ever closer to the one universal truth. In our personal lives, this leaves us much room for experimentation, trial and error. If we fail, we should not become discouraged, but rather move forward with cheerfulness and hope. “If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined,” says Emerson. 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 and 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. 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…He has not one chance, but a hundred chances”(168).

Ralph Waldo Emerson does not embody the typical mainstream American attitude. His individualism is very different from material acquisitiveness and social climbing advocated by the American Dream. Opposing such well-established institutions as organized religion, he is a rebel who has never been accepted by everyone. And yet, his cheerfulness and optimism, his emphasis on newness and innovation, his commitment to justice all reflect American attitudes. According to critic Robert Richardson, “Much of Emerson’s power lies in his complete and unwavering allegiance to intellectual and historical egalitarianism. He refuses to concede that greater eras, greater peoples or greater individuals have ever existed than exist now…Self trust or self acceptance is a liberation from the unrequesting tyranny of the past and from the injurious superiority of the rich and famous. Emerson’s lasting importance is as a liberator”(9). A liberator he is indeed, and in these perplexing times we need him more than ever.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems. Edited with a foreward by Robert D. Richardson, Jr. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

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