Self-Reliance Themes Lesson Plan
- 24 pages
- Subject: Historical Context, Literary Devices, Themes, Lesson Plans and Educational Resources
- Common Core Standards: RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.4, SL.9-10.1
- Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12
Additional Self-Reliance Resources
Identifying Theme Through Aphorism and Parataxis
This lesson plan focuses on Emerson's use of aphorism and parataxis to develop themes in “Self-Reliance.” Students will identify and interpret examples of aphorism and parataxis in the text to determine the ideas they express. Students also will identify similarities among the ideas. By analyzing Emerson’s use of aphorism and parataxis, students will be better able to draw themes from the essay that express the philosophies of transcendentalism.
Skills: close reading, identifying aphorism and parataxis, drawing themes from the text, paraphrasing main ideas, supporting interpretations with details, drawing inferences from passages in the text
Learning Objectives: By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
- explain the tenets of transcendentalism as a philosophical movement in 19th-century American thought
- define and explain aphorism and parataxis as literary devices
- identify and analyze examples of aphorism and parataxis and interpret their implied meanings
- explain how the ideas expressed through aphorism and parataxis develop and reflect the themes of transcendentalism
- explain how Emerson’s style supports his ideas about intellectual and spiritual self-reliance
About This Document
Owl Eyes lesson plans have been developed to meet the demanding needs of today’s educational environment and bridge the gap between online learning and in-class instruction. The main components of each plan include the following:
- An introduction to the text
- A step-by-step guide to lesson procedure
- Previous and following lesson synopses for preparation and extension ideas
- A collection of handouts complete with answer keys
Each of these comprehensive, 60-minute plans focus on promoting meaningful interaction, analytical skills, and student-centered activities, drawing from the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and the expertise of classroom teachers.
Introduction to the Lesson
On December 22, 1832, at the age of 29, Ralph Waldo Emerson reluctantly resigned from a secure and respected position as pastor at Boston’s Unitarian Second Church. It was a risky move for a young man shaken by his wife’s recent death from tuberculosis, a man descended from a line of ministers, a man with no clear plan for an alternate vocation or livelihood. Today, we usually remember Emerson as he was at his peak in the 1840s: an internationally famous lecturer and essayist. However, the picture was quite different in December of 1832, when Emerson suddenly found himself unemployed, alone, and unsure about his future.
The immediate cause of Emerson’s resignation was his reservation about the holy communion, the ritual taking of bread and wine in memory of Jesus Christ, as modeled in the Bible. Emerson decided he could not administer the communion in good conscience because he lacked faith in its spiritual significance. In his mind, a larger principle was at stake, one he would espouse repeatedly in his essays: the importance of rejecting old customs and opinions that have lost their significance. A classic expression of this view is Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” which argues that each man should take moral guidance from the “gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within” and disregard the pressure to conform to traditions and social norms. With that argument, “Self-Reliance” marked a turning point for both Emerson’s career and for transcendentalism, the burgeoning New England movement he championed. Emerson lays out his values for all to see: a strident individualism founded on intuition, self-knowledge, and the contemplation of nature.
Many readers find Emerson’s writing style unique and, in some ways, challenging to absorb. Two notably difficult features of Emerson’s style are on full display in “Self-Reliance.” The first is his use of aphorisms—concise statements containing broad truths—which Emerson requires his readers to decipher. The second is his use of parataxis—the juxtaposition of sentences without connective words to indicate the relationships between them. Readers must infer how strings of seemingly unconnected statements create coherent ideas. It is as if Emerson, who famously writes that “imitation is suicide,” creates obstacles to any easy imitation of his thought. His work presents a rigorous, and at times arduous, exercise in independent thinking. Rather than providing a logical sequence of ideas, Emerson’s essays drop readers into a landscape of thought, often with limited visibility and rough terrain, and insists they find their own way through.
From its inception in Emerson’s time, the philosophical movement of transcendentalism has been criticized as opaque, contradictory, and indifferent to facts. By 1850, with the death of his friend and fellow transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, even Emerson conceded that the movement seemed to be reaching its end. Yet Emerson’s brand of individualism has continued to reverberate through American culture, which tirelessly celebrates the centrality of the individual’s vision and the triumph of imagined possibilities over material limitations. Emerson’s optimistic aphorisms live on today in the teachings of self-help gurus and inspirational speakers. As long as self-reliance remains in the heart of the American identity, Emerson’s work will live on.