American Transcendentalism and Analysis of Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance"

By Steven A. Carbone II
2010, Vol. 2 No. 11 | pg. 1/1

What began in New England in the early nineteenth-century as a reform of the Congregational Church grew into what some scholars consider to be one of the most monumental movements of religion, philosophy and literature in American history. Humbly, American Transcendentalism began its transformation of the American intellect through a circle of friends, some of whom were former Unitarian ministers themselves. They desired to further reform the church, which they viewed as a “social religion that did not awaken the individual’s realization of his own spirituality” (Versluis 290). These Transcendentalists drew upon the philosophies and religions of the world to push forth their ideas of the importance of the self in spiritual life. At the forefront of this movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Himself a former Unitarian minister, Emerson was and still is viewed as the highest profile member of the “Transcendental Club” that was responsible for the re-thinking of American spirituality (Barna 60).

Emerson’s statement regarding the importance of the individual in moral and intellectual development is “Self-Reliance.” His essay supports the American Transcendental movement’s philosophical pillar: that the individual is identical with the world, and that world exists in unity with God. Through this logic, it follows that the individual soul is one with God, thusly eliminating the need for an outside institution (VanSpanckeren Net). In order to fully understand American Transcendentalism, and Emerson’s place in it, the movement’s origin and evolution must first be explored.

The roots of American Transcendentalism reach back into the eighteenth century. Religion in New England had been dominated by Calvinist ideologies, set forth by the Puritan settlers. Calvinist doctrine included the idea of the inherent corruption of human nature and the concept of salvation coming only by the discretion of God himself (Robinson “Transcendentalism” 14). It is important to note here that the Calvinist belief was that the individual had absolutely no control over their ultimate spiritual fate through their actions in life. This orthodox belief asserts the Holy Trinity, through which God presents himself, elects those men chosen for salvation or condemnation - a fate decided before the creation of the world (Hutchison 3).

In the mid eighteenth century, there arose a desire to reform these Calvinist beliefs in order to create a more positive and liberal view of human nature. A number of ministers in Boston wished to bring about a fresh New England theology that stressed the ethical and pious behavior of the individual in the self-determination of their own salvation. This group of liberals, in the early nineteenth century, began to criticize the Congregational Church and its Calvinist ideals, stating that they hindered the individual’s moral growth. This group of liberals eventually gathered behind a spokesman named William Ellery Channing, who argued the case for this fledgling Unitarian movement (Robinson “Transcendentalism” 14-15).

William Ellery Channing, in 1819, assumed the role of “unofficial spokesperson for American Unitarianism.” His sermons and speeches beseeched his audiences to seek the truth for themselves in scripture, in order to pour their findings and feelings into poetry and passion for their newfound ideals (Barna 64-65). Channing’s message stressed the fundamental belief that God was innately part of human nature and that this oneness with God would be supported by rational and reasonable interpretation of Biblical scripture (Hutchison 13).

Channing’s efforts to re-define Unitarianism and establish the self-culture were simultaneously setting the foundation upon which the Transcendentalist movement would be built (Barna 65). Channing’s message of self-development through moral and intellectual growth was reaching a new generation of participants, including Emerson. Plagued by a lack of self-confidence at this time, Emerson was struggling with the decision to commit himself to a career in the ministry. Channing’s poetic style from the pulpit encouraged Emerson, who had previously found Unitarian theological and doctrinal preaching distasteful. Emerson eventually decided, in 1832, to resign from the Unitarian ministry in order to pursue a career as an essayist and orator (Robinson “Transcendentalism” 15-16). This departure from conservative Unitarianism marked the beginnings of the Transcendentalist movement. In and around Massachusetts, the majority of new Transcendentalists came from Unitarianism. The Unitarian intellectuals of the time still believed and asserted that Christ’s divinity was proven by the miracles documented in the Bible – a claim found by the new Transcendentalists to be unreasonable (Capper 683).

In its earliest days, Transcendentalism was known mostly as a religious movement. Further reform of the church, including more open-minded reading of the Scripture and the questioning of miracles found in the Bible were considered to be most radical for the time. The movement, early on, was pushing for a less formal, less ritualistic religious experience (Worley 267). In 1836 the “Transcendental Club,” comprised of Emerson and a number of his renowned contemporaries, began meeting. This was also the year in which Ralph Waldo Emerson anonymously published his first book, Nature (Versluis 290). From this point forward, the movement took a turn towards a more broad range of target subjects, including philosophy, theology, politics and literature. The diversity of the subject matter of their criticism and writing can be attributed to the range of intellectual interests the group shared, as well as their use of sources from the western tradition and from abroad (Capper 683).

It was in this period that Emerson penned his second collection of Essays, which was published in 1841. Included in it is Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” It is a near reflection of the self-culture introduced earlier in the Unitarian reform by W.E. Channing. Emerson uses the essay as a vehicle for stressing the importance of the individual’s intellectual and moral development, and for making a defensive statement supporting individualism itself (Belasco 683).

“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” (Emerson 684). From the outset of his essay, Emerson asserts that man should be focusing his attention to his inner self for guidance rather than relying on external religion and religious and philosophical figures. In doing this, he sets out to support the ideology of the individual that lies at the core of Transcendentalism. Robinson indicates that “Self-Reliance” deals with the fall of humanity, and it’s saving throw, disciplined attention to the inner self (Robinson “Grace and Works” 226). As one progresses through Emerson’s work in “Self-Reliance,” it becomes evident that he works through several themes.

Acceptance of self is an important theme explored in the essay. The will of an individual can lead him away from the “oneness” that is essential to the Transcendentalist ideology. Reliance on, and acceptance of the self are the keys to achieving that “oneness,” by way of trusting one’s own thoughts (Barna 67). “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you” (Emerson 685). Emerson goes on to describe the childlike mind, which trusts wholly, without the self-doubt typically encountered in an adult mind. Robinson describes this state of mind as a self-possession and self-acceptance on a sub-conscious level, allowing for true, natural intuitive action (Robinson “Grace and Works” 226). For progress as a true individual under the Transcendentalist way of thought to be possible, self-acceptance was paramount. This could occur only through complete trust in a person’s own intuition without influence from outside forces of tradition, religion or government (Warren 208).

Somewhat connected to self-acceptance is the theme of non-conformity. Complete trust in one’s self requires the abandonment of reliance on outside sources. Emerson speaks of society as a “joint-stock company” where its members are satisfied with sacrificing their liberty and culture for the sake of security. He continues, “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-Reliance is its aversion” (Emerson 686). Non-conformity to society is the ultimate action of a self-reliant person, while conformity is the converse of self-reliance (Buell 173).

Emerson points to the essences of virtue, genius and life as stemming from intuition. This is considered to be the primary human wisdom, or intuition, with all later teachings considered to be “tuitions” (Emerson 691). It’s Emerson’s assertion here, as in his “Divinity School Address,” that man can only truly develop the self and follow naturally occurring intuition by removing himself from the influences of the outside world. Emerson’s statement continues to be that he can learn nothing from other people and traditions: It is the same assertion that created hostilities during his infamous speech at Harvard (Warren 208). Emerson’s tone in “Self-Reliance” is less severe than that of his “Address,” but is still strong in its message of individualism and self-trust coupled with the rejection of external distractions. He continues the criticism of the church, and man’s reliance upon it: “Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage” (Emerson 692). Reid describes the essay as pithy, and full of self-assertions and extreme self-righteousness. He also blasts Emerson’s extreme view of isolationism (Reid 307).

Repeatedly throughout “Self-Reliance,” Emerson returns to these ideas and themes to support his point that fortune and peace is attainable only through reliance on and trust in one’s self. His work is a direct reflection of the ideals brought forth by Transcendentalism mostly in part because Emerson himself was at the helm of the movement as its most renowned member. Emerson took a movement that began as a fight for reform in the church, and transformed it through his writing and his participation in the Transcendental Club, into a veritable revolution of the American way of thought and philosophy. Perhaps it all began in Emerson’s mind as a way to deal with the loss of his wife through completely isolating himself from all external thought and society, but it created a whirlwind of reformed thought. On reading “Self-Reliance,” Emerson’s influences are apparent, and his subject matter aligns perfectly with the messages and ideology of the Transcendentalists: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself” (Emerson 701).


Barna, Mark Richard. “Transcendentalism Was A Religious and Intellectual Movement.” American Romanticism. Ed. Jennifer A. Hurley. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000. 60-67.

Belasco, Susan and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume One: Beginnings to 1865. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2008.

Buell, Lawerence I. “Reading Emerson for the Structures: The Coherence of the essays.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. LVIII. No. 1. (1972): 58-69. Excerpted and reprinted in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Joann Cerrito. Vol. 38. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1993. 173-79.

Capper, Charles. “Transcendentalism.” A Companion to American Thought. Eds. Richard Wightman Fox and James T. Kloppenberg. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995. 683-685.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume One: Beginnings to 1865. Eds. Belasco, Susan and Linck Johnson. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2008. 684-701.

Hutchison, William R. The Transcendentalist Ministers. Hamden: The Shoe String Press, 1972.

Reid, Alfred S. “Emerson’s Prose Style: An Edge to Goodness.” American Renaissance: A Symposium. (1970): 37-42. Excerpted and reprinted in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Laura Lanzan Harris. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981. 305-07.

Robinson, David M. “Grace and Works: Emerson’s Essays in Theological Perspective.” American Unitarianism: 1805-1865. (1989): 121-42. Excerpted and reprinted in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Joann Cerrito. Vol. 38. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1993. 223-30.

Robinson, David M. “Transcendentalism and its Times.” The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eds. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 13-29.

VanSpanckeren, Karen. “The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: Essayists and Poets.” American Literature. 3 May 2008. 25 November 2008.

Versluis, Arthur. “Transcendentalism.” Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century. Vol. 3. Ed. Paul Finkelman. New York: Charles Scribener’s Sons, 2001. 290-93.

Warren, Joyce. “Transcendentalism and the Self: Ralph Waldo Emerson.” The American Narcissus: Individualism and Women in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction. (1984): 23-53. Excerpted and reprinted in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Joann Cerrito. Vol. 38. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1993. 208-13.

Worley, Sam McGuire. “Transcendentalism.” Encyclopedia of American Studies. New York: Grolier Educational, 2001. 266-68.

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