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Historical Context in Self-Reliance

The Transcendentalists: “Self-Reliance” was published in 1841 by the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was a member of the transcendentalist movement, which emerged in the first half of the 19th century in New England as a result of rationalism. It was a philosophical, political, and literary movement, influenced primarily by romanticism and the philosophies of Kant and Plato. As this essay’s title suggests, transcendentalists believed that individuals were most successful when left to their own devices—when reliant on themselves, as it were. They believed in the purity of the individual and echoed the emphasis the romantics placed on nature, and the importance of interactions between nature and the individual. Emerson was arguably the transcendentalist movement’s most important figure, and “Self-Reliance” was one of its key texts.

Historical Context Examples in Self-Reliance:



"Whigs..."   (Self-Reliance)

The Whigs were an American political party prominent in the 19th century. The Whigs opposed the Democratic Party and promoted the protection of industry and limitation on the power of the executive branch. There have been four Whig presidents: William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore, all of whom served between 1841 and 1853.

"Locke..."   (Self-Reliance)

John Locke (1632–1704) was an English philosopher who contributed to the disciplines of political theory, empiricism, economics, epistemology, and social reform. He was associated with the Whig party and heavily promoted political liberalism. His essays remain amongst the most influential and foundational documents of modern Western philosophy.

"Fletcher's Bonduca..."   (Self-Reliance)

John Fletcher (1579 - 1625) was a Jacobean-era English playwright who rivaled Shakespeare at the turn of the 17th century. His historic play Bonduca is about a Celtic queen who leads a revolt against the Romans in 60 CE.

"For every stoic was a stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?..."   (Self-Reliance)

Stoicism was a school of philosophical thought developed in Rome in the early centuries of the first millennium. The ideal stoic is a person able to withstand hardship without complaint. Emerson uses this comparison to show how people who follow their own abilities (for example a stoic’s ability to endure discomfort) have strength, whereas Christians (who follow other’s teachings) have become split in many ways. Because Emerson’s question carries an implicit answer and opinion, it serves as a rhetorical question.

"but what they thought..."   (Self-Reliance)

Emerson uses Moses, Plato, and Milton as examples of intellectual innovators and self-reliant thinkers. They used their intelligence to challenge norms and create their own paths. These figures did not do so by promoting the ideas of others. Rather, they shared their ideas out of personal authority.

"Milton..."   (Self-Reliance)

John Milton (1608–1674) was an English poet most famous for his epic poem Paradise Lost. He predominantly wrote in a signature blank-verse style. His writing addressed themes of faith and morality as well as issues of political and societal injustice. Milton has been tremendously influential since his time, both as a powerful, innovative poet and also as a visionary interpreter of Christian theology.

"transcendent..."   (Self-Reliance)

The adjective “transcendent” refers to that which extends beyond the range of normal human experience. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the leaders of the transcendentalist movement, a philosophical and literary movement in the 19th century that supported a new way of thinking that argued for individualism, nature, and free spirituality.

"whose equipment exhausted the resources of science and art..."   (Self-Reliance)

Emerson compares Hudson and Behring’s (Bering’s) modes of explorations with that of Parry and Franklin to highlight how Hudson and Behring were able to make great strides in exploration without the aid of advanced exploration technology. Although we would not consider Parry and Franklin’s equipment to be advanced now, they most likely had access to the best equipment when Emerson wrote this in 1841.

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