Self Reliance


Self Reliance Essay, Research Paper

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 behaviour 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 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

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

thousandfold 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


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