What is Emerson’s Argument? Examining Self-Reliance and Individualism

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Emerson’s Philosophy on Truth and Individuality

Emerson’s writings teach us about what it means to be an American. Much of his philosophy is based on the same principles of the Declaration of Independence. However, there is one thing that the authors of the Declaration of Independence, according to Emerson. They forgot about the soul and the Truth about oneself and its unique attachment to the physical world, which is manifested in nature. Emerson claims that Truth is within one’s self.

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He posits that reliance upon institutionalized religion hinders the ability to grow mentally as an individual. He counsels his readers to do what they think is right no matter what others think. Then, we can grow mentally free and fulfill the immense potential within all of us. It is because of these facts that one can argue that Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the greatest American philosophers.

The Impact of 19th Century America on Emerson’s Views

Many of Emerson’s claims and ways of viewing the world were a result of current events and society in America during the mid-19th century. The 19th century gave birth to many new ideas and even influenced certain old ones. America, the new world filled with people who were encouraged by democracy and religious freedom. However, America was not perfect. Events such as the Trail of Tears and the Civil War left many Americans hopeless and concerned about their own liberties and freedoms. Much of the Western world was drastically changing on all sorts of different levels.

What is Emerson’s Argument on Individual Authority?

To Ralph Waldo Emerson, this was the best time to revive America and “modern man.” “We have listened to long to the courtly muses of Europe (American Scholar).” It was time for America to individualize itself and leave our history and ancestry alone. The aim of his mission was to intellectually challenge the world so in a way to bring about personal freedom. In short, he claims that to rise above the world around us, which was viewed as gloomy and depressing, we must rise above ourselves.

Individual authority, to Emerson, means that citizens control the government. But even more important, he recognizes within the being of every person that they have the power to make change, this means on matters of government and personal growth. He believes that Truth is inside a person, and this is an authority, not an institution like religion. Thus, the person should be allowed to run one’s affairs the way they see fit. This is similar to the same principles on which the country was founded. Ultimately, being a self-actualized person who contributes to the government means a better system for everyone, especially within the lens of a democracy. Therefore, Emerson was a very democratic man. However, this goes beyond government affairs. This idea went on to change the way many people after him thought about life.

Emmerson advocates more time being spent reflecting on one’s self. This can also happen in the community through strong self-confidence. This would help the council not to sway from his beliefs in groups of people. Emerson’s essay, Self-Reliance, states, ‘Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.’ This is not a claim to be disobedient for the sake of neglect or denial. Rather, the goal of man is to find his or her own Truth and then one’s own authentic way of understanding life. This is also a call to everyman’s individual uniqueness. As stated before, we all have the potential to lead our lives in the very best way integrated with the world around us.

Throughout much of the 19th century in America, Christianity was constantly being analyzed and re-interpreted. America was founded on the basis that this could be done. However, to Emerson, the church was in a great deal of trouble. He claimed that people were forgetting to live their own lives and were too reliant on societal structures and systems. Consequently, there seems to be something missing from Emerson from “contemporary” Christian perspectives. He claims that originality and authenticity were absent from these schools of thought. All around him were people living lives based on traditions and customs. He thought to himself that no one knew how to be free. “Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members (Self-Reliance).” Hence, we cannot trust to rely on those around us because their best interest is in themselves and not us. At a deep level, all humans are self-interested only because their being is truly the only being they can come to know.

Emerson’s Spiritual Connection to Nature

The next step for Emerson is toward spirituality. Truth is within one’s self. Emerson posits that reliance upon institutionalized religion hinders the ability to grow mentally as an individual. We can only become a part of this Truth if we learn to look past what is around us and focus on ourselves and our connection to the world around us. This is not an excuse to live self-absorbed lives feeding our every fancy and desire. Rather, we urge us to look beyond even those ideas because they are still limiting our potential. The Truth about one’s life is within nature and our connectedness to it.

Nature, however, is not just limited to the tactile physical essence as it is perceived by us. Emerson’s obedience to nature is his way of connection with the divine. He viewed that the mysticism of God can be observed through nature. This divine energy he attributed to was within all of us. So therefore, by following nature and our true essence, we are following divine inspiration. “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe? (Nature)” Man and nature are one. It is through this connection that happiness and Truth can be found.

It is through this that the typical everydayness of life because of something much more meaningful. This idea of a tightly unified God, Man, and Nature was the key behind Emerson’s teachings. Through this, we can find our uniqueness within the ever-changing cosmos. Thus, God is everywhere. All we have left to do is live so. This means to Emerson that our individualism is what saves us. Our ability to understand our own nature is what leads us to live a life of fulfillment. The limits are boundless for the one who has no limits for himself.

There are many things that can be taken away from the literature of Emerson. He urges his readers to step away from the traditional way of life. Giving us the option to adhere to something deep within us and still far beyond our greatest imaginings. It is interesting to see how society and history leading up to Emerson almost pushed into his philosophy. His philosophy would come to be known as transcendentalism. This notion would go on to influence many artists, scholars, writers, and thinkers to follow him. However, they did not follow Emerson; they merely followed their own nature, according to Emerson.


  1. Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  2. “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  3. “The American Scholar” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  4. “The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson” edited by Joel Porte and Saundra Morris
  5. “Emerson: The Mind on Fire” by Robert D. Richardson Jr.
  6. “American Transcendentalism: A History” by Philip F. Gura
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What is Emerson's Argument? Examining Self-Reliance and Individualism. (2023, Aug 18). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/what-is-emersons-argument-examining-self-reliance-and-individualism/