3 years, 9 months, and 8 days. “Self-Reliance”



My dearest Shosh and Jaialai:

Today, we will hear from Mr. Emerson on the most important of topics:  self-reliance.  Trust yourself.  Believe in yourself.  Heed your counsel.

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in private heart is true for all men, — that is genius….  A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.  Yet, he dismisses without notice his thoughts, because it is his.  In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty….

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion….  The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.  Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none.  This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony.  The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.  We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represent….  A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into this work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace….

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.  Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.  Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.  And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text, in the face and behavior of children, babes, and even brutes!….  Their mind being whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted.  Infancy conforms to nobody: all conform to it….

A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome.  He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict.  You must court him: he does not court you.  But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness.  As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account….

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members….  The virtue in most request is conformity.  Self-reliance is its aversion.  It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.  Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right.  I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways….  [T]ruth is handsomer than the affection of love.

Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule.  There is the man and his virtues.  Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade.  Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world, as invalids and the insane pay a high board.  Their virtues are penances.  I do not wish to expiate, but to live.  My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.  I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady….  I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right.  Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.  This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.  It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.  It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force.  It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character.  If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, — under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are.  And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life.  But do your work, and I shall know you.  Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.  A man must consider what a blindman’s buff is this game of conformity.  If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument….  Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinions.  This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars.  Their every truth is not quite true….  Meanwhile, nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere….

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure….  [B]ut the sour faces of he multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs….

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of other have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them….

Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?  It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgement into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day….

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines….  Speak what you think now in harsh words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts every thing you said to-day.  — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?  Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh.  To be great is to be misunderstood.

[N]o man can violate his nature….   We pass for what we are.  Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtues or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtues or vice emit a breath every moment….

For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem….  Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions.  Your conformity explains nothing….  Greatness appeals to the future.  If I can be firm enough to-day to do right, and scorn eyes, I must have done so much right before as to defend me now.  Be it how it will, do right now.  Always scorn appearances, and you always may.  The force of character is cumulative.  All the foregone days of virtue work their wealth into this.  What makes the majesty of the heroes of the senate and the field, so fills the imagination?  The consciousness of a train of great days and victories behind….  Honor is venerable to us because it is no ephemeris.  it is always ancient virtue.  We worship to-day because it is not of to-day.  We love it and pay it homage, because it is not a trap for our love and homage, but is self-dependent, self-derived, and therefore of an old immaculate pedigree, even if shown in a young person….

Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the centre of things….  Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age….

Let a man know his worth, and keep things under his feet.  Let him not peep or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of a charity boy, a bastard, or an interloper, in the world which exists for him….  The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command me, but I am to settle its claims to praise….

Insist on yourself; never imitate.  Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.  That which each can do best, none by his Maker can teach him.  No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it.  Where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare?…  Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakspeare.  Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.



Be you.  You are unique.  Your life’s experience is unique.  Your story is unique.  Be you.  But, be the best you.

All my love, always,




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