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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essay on Self-Reliance

What is self-reliance and why is it important?
Here’s a short video on self-reliance:

One of America’s greatest writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote extensively on self-reliance. Read and listen to his essay:

SELF-RELIANCE.

“Ne te quaesiveris extra.”

“Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.”

Epilogue to Beaumont and Fletcher’s Honest Man’s Fortune.

Cast the bantling on the rocks,
Suckle him with the she-wolf’s teat,
Wintered with the hawk and fox.
Power and speed be hands and feet.

II. SELF-RELIANCE.

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. Speak your latent conviction, and
it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the
outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets
of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the
highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato and Milton is that they set
at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they
thought. 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
thought, 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. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us
than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with
good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on
the other side. Else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good
sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall
be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

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; that though the
wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to
him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given
to him to till. 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 represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good
issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work
made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put
his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done
otherwise shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not
deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no
invention, no hope.

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! That divided and rebel
mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed
the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. 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; so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults
who prattle and play to it. So God has armed youth and puberty and
manhood no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable
and gracious and its claims not to be put by, if it will stand by
itself. Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to
you and me. Hark! in the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and
emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful
or bold then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.

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 parlor 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. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into
his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges and, having observed,
observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable,
unaffrighted innocence,–must always be formidable. He would utter
opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private but
necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men and put them in
fear.

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint
and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in
conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a
joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing
of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture
of the eater. 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. He who would gather
immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must
explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity
of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the
suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was
prompted to make to 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 every thing 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. 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. If
malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an
angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me
with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, ‘Go love
thy infant; love thy wood-chopper; be good-natured and modest; have
that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this
incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar
is spite at home.’ Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth
is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some
edge to it,–else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached,
as the counteraction of the doctrine of love, when that pules and
whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius
calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, _Whim_. I hope
it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day
in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude
company. Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my
obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor?
I tell thee thou foolish philanthropist that I grudge the dollar, the
dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom
I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual
affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison if need be;
but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of
fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now
stand; alms to sots, and the thousand-fold Relief Societies;–though
I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a
wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

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
wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding. I ask
primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man
to his actions. I know that for myself it makes no difference whether
I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. 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 our 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. I hear a
preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the
institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly
can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that with all this
ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution he will do no
such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but
at one side, the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister?
He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest
affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another
handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities
of opinion. 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. Their two is not the real two, their four not the
real four; so that every word they say chagrins us and we know not where
to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in
the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear
one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine
expression. There is a mortifying experience in particular, which
does not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean “the
foolish face of praise,” the forced smile which we put on in company
where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not
interest us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved but moved by a low
usurping wilfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the
most disagreeable sensation.

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And
therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers
look askance on him in the public street or in the friend’s parlor. If
this aversation had its origin in contempt and resistance like his own
he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the
multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on
and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is the discontent
of the multitude more formidable than that of the senate and the
college. It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the world to brook
the rage of the cultivated classes. Their rage is decorous and prudent,
for they are timid, as being very vulnerable themselves. But when to
their feminine rage the indignation of the people is added, when the
ignorant and the poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute force
that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs
the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of
no concernment.

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; 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.

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about
this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated
in this or that public place? 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
judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. In
your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity, yet when the
devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though
they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as
Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little
statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul
has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow
on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak
what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict
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.

I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will
are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes
and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it
matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or
Alexandrian stanza;–read it forward, backward, or across, it still
spells the same thing. In this pleasing contrite wood-life which God
allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect
or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though
I mean it not and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound
with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave
that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass
for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that
they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not
see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.

There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be
each honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will
be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight
of at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency
unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of
a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it
straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will
explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your
conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done
singly will justify you now. 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 health into this.
What makes the majesty of the heroes of the senate and the field, which
so fills the imagination? The consciousness of a train of great days and
victories behind. They shed an united light on the advancing actor. He
is attended as by a visible escort of angels. That is it which throws
thunder into Chatham’s voice, and dignity into Washington’s port, and
America into Adams’s eye. Honor is venerable to us because it is no
ephemera. It is always ancient virtue. We worship it 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.

I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and
consistency. Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward.
Instead of the gong for dinner, let us hear a whistle from the Spartan
fife. Let us never bow and apologize more. A great man is coming to eat
at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to
please me. I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it
kind, I would make it true. 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. Where he is, there is nature. He measures
you and all men and all events. Ordinarily, every body in society
reminds us of somewhat else, or of some other person. Character,
reality, reminds you of nothing else; it takes place of the whole
creation. The man must be so much that he must make all circumstances
indifferent. Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age;
requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his
design;–and posterity seem to follow his steps as a train of clients. A
man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is
born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius that he is
confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An institution is the
lengthened shadow of one man; as, Monachism, of the Hermit Antony;
the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley;
Abolition, of Clarkson. Scipio, Milton called “the height of Rome”;
and all history Resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few
stout and earnest persons.

Let a man then 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. But the
man in the street, finding no worth in himself which corresponds to the
force which built a tower or sculptured a marble god, feels poor when
he looks on these. To him a palace, a statue, or a costly book have an
alien and forbidding air, much like a gay equipage, and seem to say like
that, ‘Who are you, Sir?’ Yet they all are his, suitors for his
notice, petitioners to his faculties that they will come out and take
possession. The picture waits for my verdict; it is not to command me,
but I am to settle its claims to praise. That popular fable of the sot
who was picked up dead drunk in the street, carried to the duke’s house,
washed and dressed and laid in the duke’s bed, and, on his waking,
treated with all obsequious ceremony like the duke, and assured that he
had been insane, owes its popularity to the fact that it symbolizes so
well the state of man, who is in the world a sort of sot, but now and
then wakes up, exercises his reason and finds himself a true prince.

Our reading is mendicant and sycophantic. In history our imagination
plays us false. Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier
vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common
day’s work; but the things of life are the same to both; the sum total
of both is the same. Why all this deference to Alfred and Scanderbeg and
Gustavus? Suppose they were virtuous; did they wear out virtue? As great
a stake depends on your private act to-day, as followed their public
and renowned steps. When private men shall act with original views,
the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of
gentlemen.

The world has been instructed by its kings, who have so magnetized the
eyes of nations. It has been taught by this colossal symbol the mutual
reverence that is due from man to man. The joyful loyalty with which men
have everywhere suffered the king, the noble, or the great proprietor
to walk among them by a law of his own, make his own scale of men and
things and reverse theirs, pay for benefits not with money but with
honor, and represent the law in his person, was the hieroglyphic by
which they obscurely signified their consciousness of their own right
and comeliness, the right of every man.

The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we
inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the
aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is
the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax,
without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into
trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear?
The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of
virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote
this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are
tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot
go, all things find their common origin. For the sense of being which
in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from
things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them
and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and
being also proceed. We first share the life by which things exist and
afterwards see them as appearances in nature and forget that we have
shared their cause. Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here
are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom and which
cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of
immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs
of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do
nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence
this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy
is at fault. Its presence or its absence is all we can affirm. Every man
discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary
perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect
faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that
these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed. My wilful
actions and acquisitions are but roving;–the idlest reverie, the
faintest native emotion, command my curiosity and respect. Thoughtless
people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of
opinions, or rather much more readily; for they do not distinguish
between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this
or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see
a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time all
mankind,–although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For
my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.

The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is
profane to seek to interpose helps. It must be that when God speaketh he
should communicate, not one thing, but all things; should fill the world
with his voice; should scatter forth light, nature, time, souls, from
the centre of the present thought; and new date and new create the
whole. Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old
things pass away,–means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now,
and absorbs past and future into the present hour. All things are
made sacred by relation to it,–one as much as another. All things are
dissolved to their centre by their cause, and in the universal miracle
petty and particular miracles disappear. If therefore a man claims to
know and speak of God and carries you backward to the phraseology of
some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe
him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness and
completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast
his ripened being? Whence then this worship of the past? The centuries
are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul. Time and
space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is
light: where it is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is
an impertinence and an injury if it be any thing more than a cheerful
apologue or parable of my being and becoming.

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say
‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before
the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make
no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they
are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is
simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before
a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower
there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature
is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike. But man
postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with
reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround
him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and
strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

This should be plain enough. Yet see what strong intellects dare not
yet hear God himself unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what
David, or Jeremiah, or Paul. We shall not always set so great a price on
a few texts, on a few lives. We are like children who repeat by rote the
sentences of grandames and tutors, and, as they grow older, of the men
of talents and character they chance to see,–painfully recollecting
the exact words they spoke; afterwards, when they come into the point of
view which those had who uttered these sayings, they understand them and
are willing to let the words go; for at any time they can use words as
good when occasion comes. If we live truly, we shall see truly. It is as
easy for the strong man to be strong, as it is for the weak to be weak.
When we have new perception, we shall gladly disburden the memory of its
hoarded treasures as old rubbish. When a man lives with God, his voice
shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn.

And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid;
probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering
of the intuition. That thought by what I can now nearest approach to say
it, is this. When good is near you, when you have life in yourself,
it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the
footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall
not hear any name;–the way, the thought, the good shall be wholly
strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience. You take
the way from man, not to man. All persons that ever existed are its
forgotten ministers. Fear and hope are alike beneath it. There is
somewhat low even in hope. In the hour of vision there is nothing that
can be called gratitude, nor properly joy. The soul raised over passion
beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of
Truth and Right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well.
Vast spaces of nature, the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea; long intervals
of time, years, centuries, are of no account. This which I think and
feel underlay every former state of life and circumstances, as it does
underlie my present, and what is called life, and what is called death.

Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant
of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new
state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one
fact the world hates; that the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades
the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame,
confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally
aside. Why then do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is
present there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance
is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies
because it works and is. Who has more obedience than I masters me,
though he should not raise his finger. Round him I must revolve by the
gravitation of spirits. We fancy it rhetoric when we speak of eminent
virtue. We do not yet see that virtue is Height, and that a man or
a company of men, plastic and permeable to principles, by the law of
nature must overpower and ride all cities, nations, kings, rich men,
poets, who are not.

This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every
topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE. Self-existence
is the attribute of the Supreme Cause, and it constitutes the measure of
good by the degree in which it enters into all lower forms. All things
real are so by so much virtue as they contain. Commerce, husbandry,
hunting, whaling, war, eloquence, personal weight, are somewhat, and
engage my respect as examples of its presence and impure action. I see
the same law working in nature for conservation and growth. Power is, in
nature, the essential measure of right. Nature suffers nothing to remain
in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of
a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from
the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are
demonstrations of the self-sufficing and therefore self-relying soul.

Thus all concentrates: let us not rove; let us sit at home with the
cause. Let us stun and astonish the intruding rabble of men and books
and institutions, by a simple declaration of the divine fact. Bid the
invaders take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within. Let
our simplicity judge them, and our docility to our own law demonstrate
the poverty of nature and fortune beside our native riches.

But now we are a mob. Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his
genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in communication with
the internal ocean, but it goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the
urns of other men. We must go alone. I like the silent church before the
service begins, better than any preaching. How far off, how cool, how
chaste the persons look, begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary!
So let us always sit. Why should we assume the faults of our friend, or
wife, or father, or child, because they sit around our hearth, or are
said to have the same blood? All men have my blood and I have all men’s.
Not for that will I adopt their petulance or folly, even to the extent
of being ashamed of it. But your isolation must not be mechanical, but
spiritual, that is, must be elevation. At times the whole world seems to
be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client,
child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet
door and say,–‘Come out unto us.’ But keep thy state; come not into
their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak
curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act. “What we love
that we have, but by desire we bereave ourselves of the love.”

If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and faith, let
us at least resist our temptations; let us enter into the state of war
and wake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy, in our Saxon breasts.
This is to be done in our smooth times by speaking the truth. Check this
lying hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the expectation
of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to
them, ‘O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived
with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be
it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal
law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavour to
nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of
one wife,–but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented
way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself
any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall
be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you
should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that
what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon
whatever inly rejoices me and the heart appoints. If you are noble,
I will love you: if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by
hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth
with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not
selfishly but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and
all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does
this sound harsh to-day? You will soon love what is dictated by your
nature as well as mine, and if we follow the truth it will bring us
out safe at last.’–But so may you give these friends pain. Yes, but I
cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility. Besides,
all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the
region of absolute truth; then will they justify me and do the same
thing.

The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a
rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and the bold
sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes. But the
law of consciousness abides. There are two confessionals, in one or the
other of which we must be shriven. You may fulfil your round of duties
by clearing yourself in the direct, or in the reflex way. Consider
whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin,
neighbor, town, cat, and dog; whether any of these can upbraid you. But
I may also neglect this reflex standard and absolve me to myself. I have
my own stern claims and perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to
many offices that are called duties. But if I can discharge its debts it
enables me to dispense with the popular code. If any one imagines that
this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the
common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust himself for a
taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that
he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a
simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!

If any man consider the present aspects of what is called by distinction
society, he will see the need of these ethics. The sinew and heart
of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding
whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death
and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons.
We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but
we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants,
have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force and do
lean and beg day and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant,
our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion we have not
chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlor soldiers. We shun
the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises they lose all
heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest
genius studies at one of our colleges and is not installed in an office
within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New
York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being
disheartened and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from
New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions,
who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits
a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in
successive years, and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a
hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days and feels no
shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life,
but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances. Let
a Stoic open the resources of man and tell men they are not leaning
willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of
self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a man is the word made flesh,
born to shed healing to the nations; that he should be ashamed of our
compassion, and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws,
the books, idolatries and customs out of the window, we pity him no more
but thank and revere him;–and that teacher shall restore the life of
man to splendor and make his name dear to all history.

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution
in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their
education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association;
in their property; in their speculative views.

1. In what prayers do men allow themselves! That which they call a holy
office is not so much as brave and manly. Prayer looks abroad and asks
for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses
itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and
miraculous. Prayer that craves a particular commodity, any thing less
than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of
life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding
and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good.
But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It
supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as
the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in
all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it,
the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true
prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends. Caratach, in
Fletcher’s Bonduca, when admonished to inquire the mind of the god
Audate, replies,–

“His hidden meaning lies in our endeavors;
Our valors are our best gods.”

Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want
of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will. Regret calamities if you can
thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend your own work and already the
evil begins to be repaired. Our sympathy is just as base. We come to
them who weep foolishly and sit down and cry for company, instead of
imparting to them truth and health in rough electric shocks, putting
them once more in communication with their own reason. The secret of
fortune is joy in our hands. Welcome evermore to gods and men is the
self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide; him all tongues
greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our love goes out
to him and embraces him because he did not need it. We solicitously and
apologetically caress and celebrate him because he held on his way and
scorned our disapprobation. The gods love him because men hated him.
“To the persevering mortal,” said Zoroaster, “the blessed Immortals are
swift.”

As men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a
disease of the intellect. They say with those foolish Israelites, ‘Let
not God speak to us, lest we die. Speak thou, speak any man with us, and
we will obey.’ 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. Every new mind is a new
classification. If it prove a mind of uncommon activity and power,
a Locke, a Lavoisier, a Hutton, a Bentham, a Fourier, it imposes its
classification on other men, and lo! a new system. In proportion to the
depth of the thought, and so to the number of the objects it touches
and brings within reach of the pupil, is his complacency. But chiefly is
this apparent in creeds and churches, which are also classifications of
some powerful mind acting on the elemental thought of duty, and man’s
relation to the Highest. Such is Calvinism, Quakerism, Swedenborgism.
The pupil takes the same delight in subordinating every thing to the new
terminology as a girl who has just learned botany in seeing a new earth
and new seasons thereby. It will happen for a time that the pupil will
find his intellectual power has grown by the study of his master’s mind.
But in all unbalanced minds the classification is idolized, passes for
the end and not for a speedily exhaustible means, so that the walls of
the system blend to their eye in the remote horizon with the walls of
the universe; the luminaries of heaven seem to them hung on the arch
their master built. They cannot imagine how you aliens have any right to
see,–how you can see; ‘It must be somehow that you stole the light from
us.’ They do not yet perceive that light, unsystematic, indomitable,
will break into any cabin, even into theirs. Let them chirp awhile and
call it their own. If they are honest and do well, presently their neat
new pinfold will be too strait and low, will crack, will lean, will rot
and vanish, and the immortal light, all young and joyful, million-orbed,
million-colored, will beam over the universe as on the first morning.

2. It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling,
whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all
educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in
the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of
the earth. In manly hours we feel that duty is our place. The soul is
no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his
duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands,
he is at home still and shall make men sensible by the expression of
his countenance that he goes, the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and
visits cities and men like a sovereign and not like an interloper or a
valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe for
the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first
domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat
greater than he knows. 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.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the
indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can
be intoxicated with beauty and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace
my friends, embark on the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there
beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical,
that I fled from. I seek the Vatican and the palaces. I affect to be
intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My
giant goes with me wherever I go.

3. But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness
affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and
our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our
bodies are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but
the travelling of the mind? Our houses are built with foreign taste; our
shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes,
our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and the Distant. The soul
created the arts wherever they have flourished. It was in his own mind
that the artist sought his model. It was an application of his own
thought to the thing to be done and the conditions to be observed. And
why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model? Beauty, convenience,
grandeur of thought and quaint expression are as near to us as to any,
and if the American artist will study with hope and love the precise
thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the
length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of
the government, he will create a house in which all these will find
themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also.

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 but 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?
Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington,
or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique. The Scipionism of
Scipio is precisely that part he could not borrow. 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. There is at this moment
for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of
Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses or Dante, but
different from all these. Not possibly will the soul, all rich, all
eloquent, with thousand-cloven tongue, deign to repeat itself; but if
you can hear what these patriarchs say, surely you can reply to them in
the same pitch of voice; for the ear and the tongue are two organs of
one nature. Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy
heart and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.

4. As our Religion, our Education, our Art look abroad, so does our
spirit of society. All men plume themselves on the improvement of
society, and no man improves.

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains
on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is
civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this
change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given something
is taken. Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts. What a
contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American,
with a watch, a pencil and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the
naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat and an
undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of
the two men and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal
strength. If the traveller tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad
axe and in a day or two the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck
the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow shall send the white to his
grave.

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.
He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has
a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by
the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the
information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star
in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as
little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in
his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his
wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may
be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have
not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in
establishments and forms some vigor of wild virtue. For every Stoic was
a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?

There is no more deviation in the moral standard than in the standard
of height or bulk. No greater men are now than ever were. A singular
equality may be observed between the great men of the first and of the
last ages; nor can all the science, art, religion, and philosophy of the
nineteenth century avail to educate greater men than Plutarch’s
heroes, three or four and twenty centuries ago. Not in time is the race
progressive. Phocion, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Diogenes, are great men, but
they leave no class. He who is really of their class will not be called
by their name, but will be his own man, and in his turn the founder of a
sect. The arts and inventions of each period are only its costume and
do not invigorate men. The harm of the improved machinery may compensate
its good. Hudson and Behring accomplished so much in their fishing-boats
as to astonish Parry and Franklin, whose equipment exhausted the
resources of science and art. Galileo, with an opera-glass, discovered a
more splendid series of celestial phenomena than any one since. Columbus
found the New World in an undecked boat. It is curious to see the
periodical disuse and perishing of means and machinery which were
introduced with loud laudation a few years or centuries before. The
great genius returns to essential man. We reckoned the improvements of
the art of war among the triumphs of science, and yet Napoleon conquered
Europe by the bivouac, which consisted of falling back on naked valor
and disencumbering it of all aids. The Emperor held it impossible to
make a perfect army, says Las Cases, “without abolishing our arms,
magazines, commissaries and carriages, until, in imitation of the Roman
custom, the soldier should receive his supply of corn, grind it in his
hand-mill, and bake his bread himself.”

Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is
composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley
to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a
nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them.

And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments
which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away
from themselves and at things so long that they have come to esteem the
religious, learned and civil institutions as guards of property, and
they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults
on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has,
and not by what each is. But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his
property, out of new respect for his nature. Especially he hates what
he has if he see that it is accidental,–came to him by inheritance, or
gift, or crime; then he feels that it is not having; it does not belong
to him, has no root in him and merely lies there because no revolution
or no robber takes it away. But that which a man is, does always by
necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property, which
does not wait the beck of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or
storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man
breathes. “Thy lot or portion of life,” said the Caliph Ali, “is seeking
after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it.” Our dependence
on these foreign goods leads us to our slavish respect for numbers.
The political parties meet in numerous conventions; the greater the
concourse and with each new uproar of announcement, The delegation from
Essex! The Democrats from New Hampshire! The Whigs of Maine! the young
patriot feels himself stronger than before by a new thousand of eyes
and arms. In like manner the reformers summon conventions and vote and
resolve in multitude. Not so, O friends! will the God deign to enter and
inhabit you, but by a method precisely the reverse. It is only as a
man puts off all foreign support and stands alone that I see him to be
strong and to prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner. Is
not a man better than a town? Ask nothing of men, and, in the endless
mutation, thou only firm column must presently appear the upholder of
all that surrounds thee. He who knows that power is inborn, that he is
weak because he has looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and so
perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, instantly
rights himself, stands in the erect position, commands his limbs, works
miracles; just as a man who stands on his feet is stronger than a man
who stands on his head.

So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain
all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful
these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God.
In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance,
and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. 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. Do not believe it.
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace
but the triumph of principles.

*****

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