What Is “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson About?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is an essay based on the combined experiences of Emerson’s life, based on journals and lectures between 1832 and 1839, and it focuses on the importance of being self-sufficient. One of the epigraphs on the first edition was a Latin phrase meaning “Don’t seek outside of yourself.” The essay has three different parts: the significance of self-reliance, the individual and self-reliance, and society and self-reliance.

One of the central ideas that Emerson and his friend, Henry David Thoreau, brought to their Transcendentalist philosophy was the notion that trying to reform society would not be successful before one had found one’s place in it. The inability to examine oneself and identify one’s calling would lead to a society performing far below its potential. A lack of self-awareness would permit society to shape one as it saw fit, draining out the independence and beauty of the free spirit. Because most people simply follow the rules of society instead of following their own individual dictates, they never reach their potential. In just 30 pages, “Self-Reliance” outlines a method for finding significance within oneself so that one is ready to go out into the world and live a life that brings meaning.