In his book titled Essays, “Self-Reliance” follows “History” so that a balanced and self-contained unit can be created out of these two. Abounding with short aphorisms, the essay begins with an admonition to believe in the true self, which is considered in essence identical with the Universal Spirit: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Emerson then holds infancy, which is favorably contrasted with adulthood, as a model for one to follow in the cultivation of a spirit of independence or nonconformity. His metaphorical use of a babe as a model of nonconformity is a radical twist of Christ’s elevation of it as an emblem of total dependence on God.
As does Wordsworth, Emerson regards a person’s growth normally as a process of losing one’s moral sentiment or spirit of nonconformity. Society is considered to have an adverse effect on the growth of each individual’s independent spirit, whereas solitude may contribute to it. Senseless philanthropy, which encourages dependence on outside help, is thus also thought to be detrimental. When Emerson states that one should live by one’s instinct, whether or not it be from the devil, he is attempting to use exaggeration to shock his audience; his idea is that the inherent moral sentiment, which makes one self-sufficient, cannot come from the devil. Total trust in one’s emotions may well result in contradiction when one’s emotions change, however; noting this, Emerson simply retorts that life itself is an organic process, inevitably involving contradiction. Acting in accordance with true feeling, he believes, will automatically bring about a sound life.
Viewed in light of self, history is thus the biography of a few unusually powerful figures. Having emphasized the importance of nonconformity, he begins to explore the philosophical basis for self-reliance. According to Emerson, there is an instinct or intuition in each individual drawing upon the Universal Spirit as the ever-dependable guiding principle. Because of the identification of intuition with the Universal Spirit, one is simply following its command when one acts in accordance with one’s intuition. The presence of the self-sufficing and self-contained Universal Spirit in each individual thus justifies one’s living in and for the present without having to refer either to the past or to the future.
Whereas Christ alone has traditionally been regarded as the Word made flesh, Emerson regards every human potentially as a reincarnation of the Word. Consequently, regret of the past and prayer for the future as a means to effect private ends are both diseases of human will and should be avoided. Traveling with the hope to see something greater than the self, in Emerson’s view, would simply be senseless. As a result of this moralistic view, society, like nature, may change but never advance. Typical of his conclusions, the end of this essay, which repeats the theme of self-reliance and predicts the subjugation of Chance under human will based on self-reliance, sounds greatly optimistic.
Emerson opens the essay by mentioning that he read a poem and found himself stirred by its unconventionality. He notes that truly original art frequently has that impact, and that the feelings such a work stirs are more important than the thoughts it contains. To place one’s thoughts out in the world because one believes they reveal something universal is what makes an individual a genius, Emerson says, but he believes that most ordinary people never speak such thoughts out loud, which is a shame. Emerson thinks people should learn to pay attention to intuitions when they arise, and should voice them, because they are worth even more than the pronouncements of a famous writer or philosopher. What a shame it is, he says, to have a moment of intuition without sharing it, only to hear the same thought expressed by another person.
Emerson’s first move in the essay is to convince the reader that respecting intuition as a source of knowledge can yield greater enlightenment than looking to other sources outside of the individual. He does so by making several provocative claims: individual perceptions of art or literature are more important than the actual works that occasion them, and ordinary intuitions are more important than those of respected sources of knowledge. These two claims reflect the respect that transcendentalists have for the individual and Emerson’s rejection of conventionality.