Self-Reliance | Study Guide

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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At a Glance

"Self-Reliance," perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803–82) most well-known essay, was published in his 1841 volume Essays: First Series. The essay brims with the American ideals of individualism, hard work, and frank honesty. It includes an enormous number of extremely quotable lines; for instance, "To be great is to be misunderstood," and "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." As a result, this essay has gained a place as one of the most important works in American literature and an enduring statement of American values.

Emerson bases "Self-Reliance" on ideas he had been developing in sermons, journals, and lectures for over a decade. The essay speaks authoritatively on the essence and vital importance of self-trust. Its self-assured, confident tone displays Emerson's experience as a preacher and lecturer as well as his deep-seated belief in the fundamental tenets of transcendentalism. Emerson was a key figure in this movement, which emphasized the individual's ability to perceive the divine within oneself and in the natural world. Emerson adheres to an important theme: "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 exhorts his audience to listen to their own inner truth and speak and act on it courageously. Indeed, he practices what he preaches by speaking his own inner ideas as universal truth.

About the Title

The title "Self-Reliance" is a statement of the topic of the essay. The essay defines self-reliance, describes its characteristics, explains its importance, and communicates its effect on the individual and on society.


This study guide for Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance offers summary and analysis on themes, symbols, and other literary devices found in the text. Explore Course Hero's library of literature materials, including documents and Q&A pairs.

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