Selected Quotations of Emerson on the Theme of Self-Reliance
"If the single man plants himself indomitably on his [higher] instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him." Our normal sense of isolation drops because if we act out of a deeper, universal value we feel at one with ourselves. In fact, even if we are alone at the time, we can feel connected to the entire cosmos, or so he implies.
"The virtue in most requests is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs." Self-reliance is entirely threatening to those who are bound to social conventions which they've rarely if ever questioned.
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines [preachers]." This often quoted saying can shake us when we'd rather hold others to rigid definitions of appropriate behavior.
"Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will." It is probably only in true community or in relationships with mutual trust that we can begin to know when we are Self-reliant or merely egoically delusional. Unless we're very mature, it might be a helpful principle that we can only vaguely guess ourselves when we're being truly Self-Reliant. And that we know only in passing and not ahead of time.
"It is impossible for a man to be cheated by anyone but himself."
"Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it." Emerson is amazing in how he says that if we resonate with a great spiritual saying the author is just saying what we really knew all along (but forgot in the Platonic sense.) And when we connect with a particular written truth, we are spiritually connected to the author, whether he be great or small, dead or alive.
Emerson seems clear in advising that books, even the best, provide a great context for living deeply but our best teacher is our own living being. In his journal he once said that he even hated books and bookworms for this reason. Yet on second thought he hoped he wouldn't be called to task on the issue because he could also easily call his books "wine of the gods".
"Every man is a divinity in disguise, a god playing the fool."
"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."
"I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I must prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, then that it should be glittery and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding." Oh were this to be true more often! How much unnecessary pain do I get myself into when I get ahead and above who I really am.
For those times when we want more status or prestige: "He walks abreast with his days and feels no shame in not 'studying a profession', for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances." I remember well the personal angst felt when a friend at the end of high school announced that the decision of what we did next would be the most important decision of our lives. Gulp! Gratefully, Emerson is pointing to the sometimes surprising truth that we have innumerable chances for experiencing life's deeper values although our external realities may be irreversible.
"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."
"When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience." Love it.
And thinking of our relationships with friends here's my particular favourite: "Let us treat men and women well; treat them as if they were real. Perhaps they are."
back to emerson section comments next