Self-Reliance


Ralph Waldo Emerson entered Harvard in 1817. In 1841, he published his first volume of essays, including Self-Reliance. The essay deals with an essential paradox of life: that to live at peace in society we must in fact break with society. To be approved of, we must act without regard to others' approval. To win the support of others, we must act alone.

Richard Brodie, the developer of the Microsoft Word program, has updated the work to make the power and wisdom of Emerson's work accessible to a new generation of readers.

Genius

The other day I read some unusual poems. The poet wasn't famous for his poetry; in fact, he is a well-known artist, a painter. But the verses were so original and unconventional that they struck me, as I'm struck by any art that refuses to conform to convention, regardless of the subject or medium. It feels like the ghost of an old schoolteacher shaking a disapproving finger at my soul, scolding me for not remembering a lesson I should have learned by now. The frame of mind this kind of art puts me into is worth more to me than its content or message.

 To believe your own thoughts—

to believe that what is true for you

in your private heart

is true for everyone—

that is genius.

Say your secret belief out loud and it becomes the truth of the universe. In time, the innermost idea will expand to the outermost edge of the cosmos, and our first thought will be echoed back to us in the dying notes of the end of eternity.


Speak Your Own Mind

 As brilliant as they were, the true contribution of Moses, Plato, Jesus, and the like is that they sidestepped history and tradition and spoke their own mind, not a rehash of what the experts agreed on.

True brilliance is noticing the little gleam of light

that flashes through your own mind from within,

not the neon signs of experts and world leaders.

But we give up on our own thoughts without a fight, simply because they are ours! In every work of genius, don't we recognize our own rejected thoughts? They return to us with a certain alienated majesty.

The most important lesson we can learn from great works of art is this: to stand behind our spontaneous impression with gentle firmness, even and especially when the fans are all cheering for the other side. And if we don't? Tomorrow some stranger will come along and say quite eloquently what we thought and felt all the time, and we'll have to shamefully take our own opinion from someone else.

Originality

At some point everyone realizes that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that like it or not, we are who we are; that despite the infinite abundance in the universe, nothing good can come to us except by working that little plot of land that we are given to farm.

Each of us is a brand-new power in nature.

No one else knows what we can do.

We ourselves don't even know until we've tried.

It's not for nothing that a face, a personality, a fact will strike a note with you but make no impression at all on me. Your mind is sculpted that way for a purpose. Your eye was placed in the path of a particular ray of light so that it could testify about that ray.

But what do we do? We don't halfway express ourselves before we become ashamed of that divine idea each of us represents. There's no reason to distrust that idea. It grew out of goodness and harmony, given to us in good faith. But God won't have his work done by cowards.

We turn out happy and refreshed when we put our heart into our work and do our best. Anything else gives us no peace; it's a shortcut that short-circuits. And when we try the shortcut we lose our inspiration, our muse, our creativity, our hope.

Trust Yourself

Trust yourself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the universe has found for you—your culture, your society, your circumstances.

Great people have always done that.

 

Like children, they take for granted

the adventure of the world they were born into.

 

They reveal their belief that what's completely trustworthy lives in their heart, works through their hands, and radiates through their entire being.

We're adults now, and must accept in our highest mind the same ultimate destiny. We're not children and cripples in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing from a revolution, but guides, liberators, and champions, loyal to the forces of Good and making advances on Chaos and the Dark.

The complete work can be downloaded (pdf) here.