Vocabulary in Self-Reliance
A “bivouac” is a temporary encampment that uses a triangular shaped tent. This was an innovative addition to the French military repertoire because it allowed troops to set and pack up camp quickly if need be.
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.
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.
An acrostic stanza is a poem in which letters from each line form a word that can be read vertically on the page. Notice how Emerson consistently reinforces his main argument; here he supports it with the idea that humans have only their nature, no matter how they act it will never change.
Transcendent means to go beyond the range of physical and 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.
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.
Doric and Gothic are two differing styles of architecture. Doric is an ancient Greek style recognizable by circular caps at the tops of fluted pillars. Gothic style came about during the 12th century in Europe and can be recognized by flying buttresses and sharply pointed arches.
A “parallax” is the difference in the position of an object as brought about by a new angle of view. In this context, Emerson uses “parallax” to show how everything must be looked at from a different point of view.
The Spartan fife was a small flute used by Spartan soldiers. Emerson uses a “Spartan fife” in contrast with “the gong for dinner” to symbolize that he wants to hear something different than something he is used to hearing for his society.
Blindman’s-buff is a game similar to tag, but the person trying to catch the other players is blindfolded. This metaphor means that people who chose to conform to societal norms are simply living their life blindfolded, rather than opening their eyes and seeing the plethora of opportunities the world has to offer.
“Bleeding” was a common medical treatment during the 19th century that oftentimes used leeches to remove toxins and infections from a sick person. In this context, Emerson could have used the word “suffering” interchangeably to communicate the point that he would rather his life be easy and comfortable than constricted and full of hard, tedious work.
A joint-stock company is a company that allows people to buy stock in it; owners of the stock are then able to share in profits and losses. This metaphor means that people both benefit and suffer by living in a society.