Thesis in Self-Reliance
Emerson employs individualism as one of the central themes of this essay. Emerson calls for the readers to not look at past heroes, or even himself, for how to be the greatest each one of us can be, but instead he calls for us to look into ourselves. He wants the reader to know that their uniqueness is where they can find their greatness and thrive.
This can be paraphrased to mean that your life is seeking you, so you don’t have to seek after it. Again notice how Emerson ties his ideas and references back to one’s self. Here, Emerson tell us that we don’t have to look into ourselves for answers and for our meaning in life because if we simply live our lives and follow our paths those answers will be given.
A 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.
David, Jeremiah, and Paul are all biblical figures. This line indicates that Emerson believes people should not only listen to and trust in the words of the Bible, but also to God’s presence within themselves.
All of the references in the following list are movements or religions started by one man alone. The “lengthened shadow of one man” is a figure of speech that means one person’s ideas can start a movement that spreads over a large group of people.
With the last sentence of the essay, Emerson gives the reader a sort of reality check. He makes the point that people can’t measure themselves by the success of society, but rather their ability to grow, self-educate, and follow personal virtue.
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 idea of the essay: “Insist on yourself,” because even with all of the great historical figures he has cited and ideas he has developed, in his eyes this is all that truly matters.
Emerson uses the aforementioned list of historical figures as support for this point because they were all men of virtue who looked for moral guidance within themselves rather than from a religion or previously stated philosophy.
Emerson uses these three historical figures as examples because their ways of thinking and acting were innovative at the time. They used their intelligence to challenge norms and create their own paths. This wasn't done through promoting other ideas; rather, it came about from their own social and intellectual libertarianism.
Emerson argues that regrets come from a lack of willpower and straying from one’s purpose. Throughout the essay, Emerson reinforces the notion that one’s most important resource is one’s self; here Emerson explains that “discontent” comes from somebody not trusting their most useful resource.
This alludes to Newton’s Third Law that claims “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In this context, Emerson argues that people can look only within themselves to improve their own lives. No amount of money, machinery, or work can achieve progress, only the fact of knowing and being your most accurate, individual self.
This embodies a major theme and is perhaps one of the most famous quotes from the essay. Emerson tells us that if we get into a day-to-day routine that does not help us grow, no matter who we are, rich or poor, our minds will be ruined by the constraints we make for ourselves.
This is Latin for the most prominent theme of the essay: “Do not seek for things outside yourself.” Emerson opens the essay with this maxim to prepare the reader for the content of the essay. Notice how strict Emerson is through the course of the essay, never straying from his main objective, but rather continuously reinforcing it.
Here Emerson introduces individualism, the most enduring theme of the essay. He uses historical figures to exemplify how some of the greatest philosophers, scientists, diplomats, and artists all created, apparently, brand new branches or aspects of their respective fields.