Self Reliance and Other Essays

What Hangs in the Balance

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author of Self Reliance, was one of the leading Transcendentalists in the American movement and a truly "American" writer. However, he was not as dedicated as Henry David Thoreau, who spent two years living in the woods and detailed his life and thoughts there in Walden. Emerson was of a different breed, writing from behind a desk. His respected standing as an intellectual (attending Harvard College and Divinity School) allowed him to maintain respect for his writings. However, what does he really want to say? While he holds true to the idea of believing in yourself and not copying others, he seems to contradict himself in a number of places. His contradictions ultimately seem to point to a balance between isolation and conformism, while his language reveals a more important discovery about what he thinks his audience believes and how he tries to influence their views.

Emerson tries to hit his point hard early of believing in your own thought, yet in the first appearance of these sentiments in Self Reliance, he presents a troubling contradiction. Emerson writes, "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...

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