Self Reliance Summary by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Voicing his lessons and thoughts on dependence and independence, Emerson wrote this essay to discuss the ability to be self-reliant and self-sustaining.

What is True Knowledge

Individuals in society are forced to conform and fit an ideal image. They are constantly shaped and altered by their environment. However, true knowledge lies in the discovery of an individual.

To know what constitutes a man is the ultimate door to independence. This originality and individuality are what history celebrates, be it in the words of Plato or the miracles of Moses.

When a man is born, he is innocent and pure. He has not been socialized and morally adjusted yet. So, we should try and return to that state and cultivate our own moral understandings and meanings.

Follow One’s Own Instincts

We should follow our innate instincts and train them to develop our individual thought process. Society, on the hand, wants to destroy this instinct and individualism by adjusting it to its rules and laws. We must break these shackles and trust our instincts if we want to find our true self and salvation.

Emerson goes on to explain that every soul has an imprint of the ‘Universal Spirit’ and it is our pure instincts and intuition that connect us to that portion of our beings. One must follow his/her instincts to find a link with that all-embracing entity.

There are many structures in one’s life that try and direct and control it. It can be a religion or culture that dominates one’s way of thinking and consequent actions. But an individual needs to free himself from such restrictions and think independently and act responsibly.

Personal Growth

If every man can develop his own thoughts and opinions then the society can progress collectively. Therefore, rather than working on societal transformation one should focus on personal growth.

With personal development, one also needs to develop an attitude of care and honesty with other individuals of society. This helps in mutual understanding and collective strength. Often, when individuals listen to their call of instincts and rise above social limitations, they are misunderstood and even condemned.

Fight Against Established Norms

But we should shun such allegiance to the established norms and even our past achievements by always striving to improve our present. We should not forget all the greats of their age like Socrates, Galileo, and Pythagoras etc were persecuted for their uniqueness and individual fortitude.

Emerson believes that chasing after changes on a global scale is pointless as we only understand things to an individual level. Thinking about the grand and holy transformation of the world is beyond our comprehension and mindless philanthropy is both futile and fruitless.

Emerson suggests we should embody our prayers and wishes just like a farmer who tills his field in the heat or a fisherman casts his net in the wild tides. Rather than begging for divine help and miracles we should work on producing our own miracles and find unity with God by developing an attitude of submission.


In the end, Emerson warns men against pride and arrogance over his past achievements and an accomplishment as he denies that society has progressed in true values.

He believes often we equate acquiring newer values as a sign of progress but we ignore the fact that we often forget and unlearn our old values in search of the new.

For example in learning to fly we forget the ability to walk or in making life easier we forget the ability to endure difficulties. One needs to find a balance between the two to find success and exercise humility in doing so.