Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American Transcendentalist poet and essayist during the 19th century who wrote his best essay titled “Self-Reliance.” The purpose of Emerson’s essay was to encourage his readers to think freely. He argued that societal standards have a conflicting effect on an individual’s personal growth and individuality, and states that self-sufficiency allows the individual to determine their own opinions and ideas instead of allowing outside influences direct their thoughts and actions. Emerson was ahead of his time in the aspect of thinking more rationally than most during this time period, which is why he founded transcendentalism. His essay conveys an inspirational yet informative approach to individuality through many rhetorical strategies that help Emerson connect to his audience.
At the beginning of his essay, Emerson states, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Using the application of logos, Emerson appeals to the readers by suggesting that each individual has the same trust of acknowledgment, when in reality we must believe and acknowledge ourselves to begin with. He states that it is cowardly of a person to only rely on others’ judgement, and that a person with self-esteem exhibits more originality. He connects this with being child-like. I believe this is a misinterpreted part of the essay because although he is comparing being self-confident with being child-like, he is saying that children have a tendency to act with self-reliant behavior because they are too young to realize or care what other people think. Emerson empowers the reader to create themselves through trust without letting the fear of disapproval morph the way they think or act. In the event that each person trusts themselves enough to find self-acceptance and stability, they are competent enough of overcoming the internal doubts they hold themselves accountable for.
Emerson remains in a motivational tone as he states, “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.” Emerson doesn’t want his readers to feel like they are incapable because he believes that everyone can accomplish something. As he connects to the reader in an emotional way, he makes them feel secure and confident in wanting to branch out. Emerson continues to use repetition to place the idea that everything happens for a reason. Which is something I truly believe in. Everything in our lives happens for a reason. He uses short events to create one big idea that everywhere we go, we are majorly influenced. Another thing Emerson mentions is “the sculpture in the memory” which is a metaphor for the underlying idea that all of our life experiences shape us into the person we are today. He implies that without looking into the past we can not “sculpt” the way we are in the present moment. Emerson continues to use the strategy of pathos to emotionally connect to his reader in order to remind them that they are in control and can shape their own future.
Another aspect of Emerson’s essay is how he mentions consistency. He states that “a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.” Emerson implies that consistency is an enemy of independence in the sense that people are too scared to act or think differently in fear of contradicting their previous beliefs or actions. He states that being obsessed with consistency drains energy from the act of living essentially because people are too busy thinking about their next move too often to just do it. Emerson uses the metaphor “corpse of your memory” as he explains why contradicting what you did or said before shouldn’t matter because what you say today is in the present. Society’s disapproval and scorn has put an underlying fear in people which restrains them from independence and growth. Emerson uses pathos again to connect to his readers in order to let his idea sink in. He states, “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything 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.” Emerson states that successful and well-known persons are inconsistent and were perceived as “misunderstood” in order to create credibility. This persuades the reader to believe that if inconsistent people like that can create such a large impact, then why can’t they?
Later on, Emerson uses a simple style to convey simple ideas. He says, “A man is relieved and gay when he has but his heart into his work and done his best.” This statement is useful in the fact that this is a clear and easy concept to grasp. If you simply do your best, then you will experience true happiness. Once again, Emerson uses pathos to affirm the audience that if they simply do their best and put their heart into everything they do, they will be happy. The next idea contradicts happiness and portrays a feeling of distress. Emerson says that you will never find peace if you do not put your all into what you do. This warns the reader of the negative emotions they could potentially experience without being completely motivated in all that they set their hearts on.
Emerson presently proposes a transformative improvement of human advancement, tantamount to the improvement of an individual from youth to adulthood. The present age — the primary portion of the 1800s — is a time of analysis, particularly self-analysis. Albeit a few people see such analysis as a mediocre way of thinking, Emerson accepts that it is legitimate and significant. Starting a progression of inquiries, he solicits whether discontent with the quality from current idea and writing is such an awful thing; he answers that it isn’t. Disappointment, he says, denotes a transitional time of development and advancement into new learning: ‘If there is any period one would want to be conceived in,is it not the time of Revolution; when the old and the new stand one next to the other, and concede to being looked at; . . . This [present] time, similar to all occasions, is a generally excellent one, on the off chance that we however recognize how to manage it.’
Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay is very inspirational and influential to whoever may read it.. He teaches the importance of individualism and how it affects our daily lives imensefully. Throughout the essay, Emerson uses pathos, repetition, motivating diction, and metaphors effectively in order to portray the underlying beauty in just being yourself.. Emerson wants the world to be unique and diverse, and effectively explains how to do just that throughout his powerful essay. This essay has truly put hope into many lives
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance (1841).” Self Reliance, 1996, doi:10.4159/9780674286290-009.