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Themes in Self-Reliance

Themes Examples in Self-Reliance:


🔒 7

"Every great man is a unique...."   (Self-Reliance)

Emerson posits individualism as the central theme of this essay. Emerson calls for each reader to not look at past heroes, or even at Emerson himself, for guidance on how to be the greatest person they can be. Instead he calls for us to look into ourselves. He wants the readers to know that their uniqueness is where they can find their greatness and thrive.

"Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession...."   (Self-Reliance)

Emerson uses repetition throughout the essay to make his themes read with a sense of meditative feeling. In the second to last paragraph, he opens with this sentence to bring the reader back to the main thesis of the essay: “Insist on yourself.” After the long list of historical figures he has cited and ideas he has developed, in his eyes this thesis of self-reliance is all that truly matters.

"a new system..."   (Self-Reliance)

The aforementioned people all created new systems of philosophical or scientific reasoning. Emerson chooses these specific people to highlight his theme of intellectual pioneerism. At any given point in history, there are new fields and avenues of study to be invented, discovered, and explored.

"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.

"“without abolishing our arms, magazines, commissaries and carriages, until, in imitation of the Roman custom, the soldier should receive his supply of corn, grind it in his hand-mill and bake his bread himself.”..."   (Self-Reliance)

Emmanuel Las Casas (1766–1842) was a French historian and author most famous for his book about Napoleon, The Memorial of Saint Helena. This quote serves as a metaphor for one of Emerson's main claims in this essay: "to make a perfect army" every soldier would have to learn how to do everything involved in the battle from scratch (even manufacturing guns), instead of being given the guns ready to shoot.

"To be great is to be misunderstood..."   (Self-Reliance)

The preceding list only includes men who introduced seemingly brand new ideas into society. Whether their ideas were disputed by common belief or had never been thought of before, Emerson uses these men to exemplify that the greatest minds don’t learn their greatness from previously provided information, but instead they acquire it from their innate ability to think and act independently of the common fields of thought.

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