Self Reliance and Other Essays

Self Reliance and Other Essays Themes


Emerson emphasized the role and cultivation of the individual, whom he believed should avoid conformity and false consistency (i.e., consistency with our past actions and beliefs if they no longer fit the needs or desires of the present), and instead pursue his/her own instincts and ideas, to be self-reliant, even at the cost of being misunderstood by society.

Compatability between Science and the Humanities

Give the focus of his essays on topics like poetry, philosophy, and religion, Emerson may appear primarily oriented toward the humanities, but he was also deeply interested in science throughout his life (e.g., geology, astronomy, chemistry, and particularly botany). Indeed, he believed there was no necessary divide between the humanities and science, as both, he argued, aimed to articulate a theory of nature.

Constant Revelation

In his writing, Emerson often described common, natural scenes found in his everyday life. For example, in Nature, he wrote, "Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear." Rather than mundane observations of his surroundings though, such examples served to illustrate the constant revelations he believed could be found in our embodied experiences of nature in the present moment (provided we are alert and open to their existence).


Emerson understood nature to be in a state of continuous flux; that is, nature is a process, rather than a static object. Because this is the case with nature, it is also the case with life. For example, in "Circles," he argued life is based upon the perpetual propagation of circles, or worldviews, that emanate from the force or truth of the individual soul always moving toward (but never quite reaching) what we worship above us. As such, even morality and truth are never final and eternal, but rather always "initial." Indeed, to quote Emerson, "In the thought of to-morrow there is a power to upheave all thy creed, all the creeds, all the literatures of the nations, and marshal thee to heaven which no epic dream has yet depicted. Every man is not so much a workman in the world as he is a suggestion of that he should be. Men walk as prophecies of the next age."

The Fundamental Relationship with Nature

Emerson argued that nature is the fundamental source, context, and relationship for understanding our lives, based on the correspondence between the human mind/soul (the inner world) and external nature/oversoul/Reason/God (the outer world).


Beginning with Nature, Emerson's writing influenced the emergence and development of Transcendentalism as a movement (see Glossary entry on Transcendentalism for more details).

A New and Fundamentally American History

Emerson was a progressive force in reforming the European conception of American history.  See Glossary entry on American history for more details.