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Emerson’s Definition of Self-Reliance: Every heart vibrates to that iron string

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“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” This quote is towards the beginning of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and it is the basis of Emerson’s convictions. “Trust thyself,” begins the quotation. The semicolon separates this idiom from the rest of the quote, because it has the power to stand alone. Emerson believed that to rely on others is cowardly, so to trust ourselves is what we can rely on. “Every heart vibrates to that iron string,” he continues, presumptuously speaking for “every heart.” Throughout his writing, Emerson speaks with bold conviction, because he truly believes that everyone should follow his teachings. He finishes this quotation with “iron string,” giving the reader the feeling of permanence. An “iron string” is holding; it is not frail or meager. Again, Emerson’s bold convictions speak here as he tells the reader that if they trust themselves, it will be everlasting. Although trusting oneself is the basis of Emerson’s self-reliance, the term is truly multifaceted. In this essay, I seek to define the concepts that Emerson bases self-reliance on, in order to achieve a true understanding of this complex term.

In the beginning of the essay, Emerson begins with emphasizing the importance of our own ideas versus accepting others ideas. “I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” Emerson asserts that we must trust in our own ideas and experiences, and abandon the knowledge gained from books. We must trust in our own intuition rather than relying on other opinions, in order to be truly self-reliant. Emerson claims individualism is a courageous act, however, he believes that those who do not follow it simply lack the originality and creativity in order to do so. Specifically, those who only follow the written word of others believe that new ideas will be sparked by reading what has already been thought. Therefore, Emerson asserts that there will be only acceptance and reiteration of the same ideas, not with any original thought added. Thus, in order to have true self-reliance one must trust themselves, but secondly, trust their own convictions and ideas without relying on the intelligence of other people.

Later, Emerson characterizes the enlightened, self-reliant individual as a child:

The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. 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 doesn’t court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he had 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.

He characterizes the self-reliant individual as a young boy. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Emerson points out the deep sexism of gender roles, and how the boy is often free of harsh societal expectations. Thus, he is independent, unreliant, strong, carefree. Boys do not need to worry about dinner, it is a woman’s job to prepare the food. He is allowed to pass judgement on any stranger who passes. He does not worry about consequences; he is able to freely give opinions. He does not have to ask of things, ‘you’ must ask him. Emerson tells the reader that one of the facets in order to be self-reliant is to be like the boy: independent, unreliant, strong, carefree. However, this analogy does not stop at the unlimited ability that boys are entitled to. Emerson continues, “but the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness,” and so the reader draws the comparison between adults and children. A child, particularly an underdeveloped boy, does not show caution. They are not old enough to understand consequences, and more importantly, they are not old enough to care about social norms. A child does not concern themselves with adult concepts like reputation, image, approval, or opinions of others. Thus, the only way to achieve true self-reliance is to let go of these concerns. Self-reliance is only concerned with being genuine, original, and wholly oneself.

Emerson later emphasizes the importance of resisting the urge to conform to external norms, specifically (and ironically considering he was a minister) the church:

I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — ‘But these impulses may be from below, not from above.’ I replied, ‘They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.’ No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.

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In this quotation, Emerson brazenly dismisses the concept that following one’s inner voice might be wrong because it might be swayed by the Devil. It is a curious statement to make considering the writer’s former occupation as a minister, and as a frequent writer of nature in its relation to religion. He continues, “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature… the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” By this, Emerson infers that it is better to be of an evil nature than to follow society’s demands and expectations. This is truly an extreme view on self-reliance. We must consider this aspect in its definition, that self-reliance is fundamentally more important than the concepts of good versus evil.

Another aspect of the church that Emerson disagrees with is its fear of individual creativity, “Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother because he has shut his own temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother’s, or his brother’s brother’s God.’ Although technically anyone can have their own ideas on religion, organized religion in the setting of church often encourages the minister’s own ideas rather than encouraging new ones. Again, Emerson reminds us that to understand his definition of self-reliance, we need to understand the importance of originality.

At the end of his essay, Emerson focuses on specific areas where individuals are needed, like in culture and the arts. In order to be self-reliant, we must appreciate our own home and develop our own culture. Emerson has a cynical view of traveling and seeking experiences away from home, because “travelling is a fool’s paradise.” The definition of this idiom that Emerson employs is, “a state of enjoyment based on false beliefs or hopes; a state of illusory happiness.” Emerson calls the need for traveling a symptom of the failed school system. We disillusion ourselves into believing we need to travel to experience other people’s work rather than create that work ourselves. He later reference the image of a child that was seen earlier, “He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.” In this quotation, Emerson is distinguishing the self-reliant individual from the reliant individual, by using the image of the child. He reminds us that the self-reliant individual is a youth; he is child-like, original, despite everyone around him. The reliant individual travels for the wrong reasons, and creates nothing new; hence, the reliant individual is ‘old,’ ‘dilapidated,’ and ‘in ruins.’ Emerson reminds us that despite the illusion of travel, we need not be fooled. If we do not follow the definition of self-reliance and if we get lost in the illusion, we are ruined.

Emerson ends his essay by coming full circle in his thoughts: to be self-reliant, one needs to depend solely on themselves. The last paragraph describes Fortune, and how one can believe that it can be favorable, “A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you.” However, he encourages the reader, “do not believe it.” Emerson believes that no external event will have the power to change how we feel about ourselves. He ends on a hopeful note, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” No matter what happens, the regard that one has for themselves is entirely dependent on them, and that is true self-reliance.

Throughout this essay, I sought to define self-reliance in its many multifaceted ways. One of the main aspects to this essay and many others, is that Emerson calls for us to abandon our beliefs and principles. Throughout “Self-Reliance,” he does this on multiple occasions. However, Emerson ascertains that what we are left with is… ourselves. In order to be self-reliant, the foundational step is to first “trust thyself.” Emerson calls for us to abandon all of our previous beliefs and understandings, except for that one because it is the core belief. Without it, we are lost.

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Emerson’s Definition of Self-Reliance: Every heart vibrates to that iron string. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from
“Emerson’s Definition of Self-Reliance: Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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Emerson’s Definition of Self-Reliance: Every heart vibrates to that iron string [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2023 Feb 9]. Available from:
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