Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which
were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition
in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill
is of more value than any thought they may contain. 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 latent conviction,
and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes
the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets
of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the
highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato and Milton is that they set at
naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought.
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. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because
it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts;
they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of
art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide
by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most
when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else to-morrow a stranger
will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt
all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion
from another.

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 behavior
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 parlor 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

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 thousand-fold 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 withhold.

Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception
than the rule. There is the man and his virtues. Men do
what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or
charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of
daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an
apology or extenuation of their living in the world,—as
invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are
penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is
for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it
should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than
that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be
sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding. I ask
primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal
from the man to his actions. I know that for myself it makes
no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which
are reckoned excellent. I cannot consent to pay for a privilege
where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be,
I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the
assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.
This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve
for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder
because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty
better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's
opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man
is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence
of solitude.

The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead
to you is that it scatters your force. It loses your time and
blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead
church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great
party either for the government or against it, spread your
table like base housekeepers,—under all these screens I have
difficulty to detect the precise man you are: and of course
so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your
work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce
yourself. A man must consider what a blindman's-buff is this
game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your
argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the
expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not
know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous
word? Do I not know that with all this ostentation of examining
the grounds of the institution he will do no such thing? Do I
not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one
side, the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister?
He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the
emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with
one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some
one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes
them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies,
but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite
true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real
four; so that every word they say chagrins us and we know not
where to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow
to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we
adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire
by degrees the gentlest asinine expression. There is a mortifying
experience in particular, which does not fail to wreak itself
also in the general history; I mean "the foolish face of praise,"
the forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel
at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us.
The muscles, not spontaneously moved but moved by a low
usurping wilfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face
with the most disagreeable sensation.

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.
And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face.
The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or
in the friend's parlor. If this aversation had its origin
in contempt and resistance like his own he might well go home
with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude,
like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on
and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is the
discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of the
senate and the college. It is easy enough for a firm man who
knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes.
Their rage is decorous and prudent, for they are timid, as
being very vulnerable themselves. But when to their feminine
rage the indignation of the people is added, when the ignorant
and the poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute force
that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow,
it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it
godlike as a trifle of no concernment.

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our
consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because
the eyes of others have no other data for computing our
orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why
drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict
somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?
Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems
to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone,
scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past
for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever
in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality
to the Deity, yet when the devout motions of the soul come,
yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God
with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat
in the hand of the harlot, and flee.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by
little statesmen and philosophers and divines
. With consistency a
great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with
his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow
speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict
every thing you said to-day.—'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.'—Is
it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and
Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton,
and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is
to be misunderstood.

I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies
of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the
inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the
curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and
try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian
stanza;—read it forward, backward, or across, it still
spells the same thing. In this pleasing contrite wood-life
which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest
thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt,
it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not and see
it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the
hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave
that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also.
We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills.
Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only
by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a
breath every moment.

There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions,
so they be each honest and natural in their hour. For of
one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike
they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little
distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency
unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag
line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient
distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.
Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain
your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.
Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify
you now. Greatness appeals to the future. If I can be firm
enough to-day to do right and scorn eyes, I must have done
so much right before as to defend me now. Be it how it will,
do right now. Always scorn appearances and you always may.
The force of character is cumulative. All the foregone days
of virtue work their health into this. What makes the majesty
of the heroes of the senate and the field, which so fills the
imagination? The consciousness of a train of great days and
victories behind. They shed an united light on the advancing
actor. He is attended as by a visible escort of angels. That
is it which throws thunder into Chatham's voice, and dignity
into Washington's port, and America into Adams's eye. Honor
is venerable to us because it is no ephemera. It is always
ancient virtue. We worship it to-day because it is not of
to-day. We love it and pay it homage because it is not a
trap for our love and homage, but is self-dependent, self-
derived, and therefore of an old immaculate pedigree, even
if shown in a young person.

I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity
and consistency. Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous
henceforward. Instead of the gong for dinner, let us hear
a whistle from the Spartan fife. Let us never bow and
apologize more. A great man is coming to eat at my house.
I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to
please me. I will stand here for humanity, and though I
would make it kind, I would make it true. Let us affront
and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment
of the times, and hurl in the face of custom and trade and
office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that
there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working
wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other
time or place, but is the centre of things. Where he is,
there is nature. He measures you and all men and all events.
Ordinarily, every body in society reminds us of somewhat
else, or of some other person. Character, reality, reminds
you of nothing else; it takes place of the whole creation.
The man must be so much that he must make all circumstances
indifferent. Every true man is a cause, a country, and an
age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to
accomplish his design;—and posterity seem to follow his
steps as a train of clients. A man Caesar is born, and for
ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and
millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius that
he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An
institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as,
Monachism, of the Hermit Antony; the Reformation, of Luther;
Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson.
Scipio, Milton called "the height of Rome"; and all history
Resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout
and earnest persons.

Let a man then know his worth, and keep things under his
feet. Let him not peep or steal, or skulk up and down with
the air of a charity-boy, a bastard, or an interloper in
the world which exists for him. But the man in the street,
finding no worth in himself which corresponds to the force
which built a tower or sculptured a marble god, feels poor
when he looks on these. To him a palace, a statue, or a
costly book have an alien and forbidding air, much like a
gay equipage, and seem to say like that, 'Who are you, Sir?'
Yet they all are his, suitors for his notice, petitioners
to his faculties that they will come out and take possession.
The picture waits for my verdict; it is not to command me,
but I am to settle its claims to praise. That popular fable
of the sot who was picked up dead drunk in the street,
carried to the duke's house, washed and dressed and laid in
the duke's bed, and, on his waking, treated with all obsequious
ceremony like the duke, and assured that he had been insane,
owes its popularity to the fact that it symbolizes so well
the state of man, who is in the world a sort of sot, but now
and then wakes up, exercises his reason and finds himself a
true prince.

Our reading is mendicant and sycophantic. In history our
imagination plays us false. Kingdom and lordship, power
and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and
Edward in a small house and common day's work; but the things
of life are the same to both; the sum total of both is the
same. Why all this deference to Alfred and Scanderbeg and
Gustavus? Suppose they were virtuous; did they wear out
virtue? As great a stake depends on your private act to-day,
as followed their public and renowned steps. When private men
shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred
from the actions of kings to those of gentlemen.

The world has been instructed by its kings, who have so
magnetized the eyes of nations. It has been taught by this
colossal symbol the mutual reverence that is due from man
to man. The joyful loyalty with which men have everywhere
suffered the king, the noble, or the great proprietor to
walk among them by a law of his own, make his own scale of
men and things and reverse theirs, pay for benefits not
with money but with honor, and represent the law in his
person, was the hieroglyphic by which they obscurely
signified their consciousness of their own right and
comeliness, the right of every man.

The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained
when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee?
What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance
may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-
baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements,
which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure
actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry
leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of
virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.
We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later
teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact
behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common
origin. For the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we
know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from
space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them and
proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and
being also proceed. We first share the life by which things
exist and afterwards see them as appearances in nature and
forget that we have shared their cause. Here is the fountain
of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration
which giveth man wisdom and which cannot be denied without
impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence,
which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity.
When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of
ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence
this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all
philosophy is at fault. Its presence or its absence is all we
can affirm. Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts
of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to
his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err
in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are
so, like day and night, not to be disputed. My wilful actions
and acquisitions are but roving;—the idlest reverie, the
faintest native emotion, command my curiosity and respect.
Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of
perceptions as of opinions, or rather much more readily; for
they do not distinguish between perception and notion. They
fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception
is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children
will see it after me, and in course of time all mankind,—
although it may chance that no one has seen it before me.
For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.

The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure
that it is profane to seek to interpose helps. It must be
that when God speaketh he should communicate, not one thing,
but all things; should fill the world with his voice; should
scatter forth light, nature, time, souls, from the centre of
the present thought; and new date and new create the whole.
Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old
things pass away,—means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it
lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour.
All things are made sacred by relation to it,—one as much
as another. All things are dissolved to their centre by their
cause, and in the universal miracle petty and particular
miracles disappear. If therefore a man claims to know and
speak of God and carries you backward to the phraseology of
some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world,
believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its
fulness and completion? Is the parent better than the child
into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence then this
worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against
the sanity and authority of the soul. Time and space are but
physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is
light: where it is, is day; where it was, is night; and history
is an impertinence and an injury if it be any thing more than
a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he
dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or
sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing
rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former
roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they
exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is
simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its
existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts;
in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless
root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied and it
satisfies nature in all moments alike. But man postpones or
remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted
eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround
him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy
and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above

This should be plain enough. Yet see what strong intellects
dare not yet hear God himself unless he speak the phraseology
of I know not what David, or Jeremiah, or Paul. We shall not
always set so great a price on a few texts, on a few lives.
We are like children who repeat by rote the sentences of
grandames and tutors, and, as they grow older, of the men of
talents and character they chance to see,—painfully recollecting
the exact words they spoke; afterwards, when they come into the
point of view which those had who uttered these sayings, they
understand them and are willing to let the words go; for at any
time they can use words as good when occasion comes. If we live
truly, we shall see truly. It is as easy for the strong man to
be strong, as it is for the weak to be weak. When we have new
perception, we shall gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded
treasures as old rubbish. When a man lives with God, his voice
shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of
the corn.

And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains
unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is
the far-off remembering of the intuition. That thought by
what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this. When
good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not
by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the
footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man;
you shall not hear any name;—the way, the thought, the good
shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example
and experience. You take the way from man, not to man. All
persons that ever existed are its forgotten ministers. Fear
and hope are alike beneath it. There is somewhat low even
in hope. In the hour of vision there is nothing that can
be called gratitude, nor properly joy. The soul raised over
passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives
the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself
with knowing that all things go well. Vast spaces of nature,
the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea; long intervals of time,
years, centuries, are of no account. This which I think and
feel underlay every former state of life and circumstances,
as it does underlie my present, and what is called life,
and what is called death.

Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the
instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition
from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in
the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates; that
the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades the past, turns
all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds
the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally
aside. Why then do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as
the soul is present there will be power not confident but
agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking.
Speak rather of that which relies because it works and is.
Who has more obedience than I masters me, though he should
not raise his finger. Round him I must revolve by the
gravitation of spirits. We fancy it rhetoric when we speak
of eminent virtue. We do not yet see that virtue is Height,
and that a man or a company of men, plastic and permeable to
principles, by the law of nature must overpower and ride all
cities, nations, kings, rich men, poets, who are not.

This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this,
as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed
ONE. Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause,
and it constitutes the measure of good by the degree in which
it enters into all lower forms. All things real are so by so
much virtue as they contain. Commerce, husbandry, hunting,
whaling, war, eloquence, personal weight, are somewhat, and
engage my respect as examples of its presence and impure
action. I see the same law working in nature for conservation
and growth. Power is, in nature, the essential measure of right.
Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot
help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise
and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong
wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are
demonstrations of the self-sufficing and therefore self-relying

Thus all concentrates: let us not rove; let us sit at home
with the cause. Let us stun and astonish the intruding
rabble of men and books and institutions, by a simple
declaration of the divine fact. Bid the invaders take the
shoes from off their feet, for God is here within. Let our
simplicity judge them, and our docility to our own law
demonstrate the poverty of nature and fortune beside our
native riches.

But now we are a mob. Man does not stand in awe of man, nor
is his genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in
communication with the internal ocean, but it goes abroad
to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men. We must go
alone. I like the silent church before the service begins,
better than any preaching. How far off, how cool, how chaste
the persons look, begirt each one with a precinct or sanctuary!
So let us always sit. Why should we assume the faults of our
friend, or wife, or father, or child, because they sit around
our hearth, or are said to have the same blood? All men have
my blood and I have all men's. Not for that will I adopt their
petulance or folly, even to the extent of being ashamed of it.
But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that
is, must be elevation. At times the whole world seems to be in
conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend,
client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once
at thy closet door and say,—'Come out unto us.' But keep thy
state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to
annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near
me but through my act. "What we love that we have, but by
desire we bereave ourselves of the love."

If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and
faith, let us at least resist our temptations; let us enter
into the state of war and wake Thor and Woden, courage and
constancy, in our Saxon breasts. This is to be done in our
smooth times by speaking the truth. Check this lying
hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the
expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with
whom we converse. Say to them, 'O father, O mother, O wife,
O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances
hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth's. Be it known unto
you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal
law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall
endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to
be the chaste husband of one wife,—but these relations I
must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from
your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any
longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am,
we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek
to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or
aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that
I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly
rejoices me and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will
love you: if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by
hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same
truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own.
I do this not selfishly but humbly and truly. It is alike your
interest, and mine, and all men's, however long we have dwelt
in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh to-day? You
will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as
mine, and if we follow the truth it will bring us out safe at
last.'—But so may you give these friends pain. Yes, but I
cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility.
Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they
look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they
justify me and do the same thing.

The populace think that your rejection of popular standards
is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and
the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild
his crimes. But the law of consciousness abides. There are
two confessionals, in one or the other of which we must be
shriven. You may fulfil your round of duties by clearing
yourself in the direct, or in the reflex way. Consider
whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother,
cousin, neighbor, town, cat, and dog; whether any of these
can upbraid you. But I may also neglect this reflex standard
and absolve me to myself. I have my own stern claims and
perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices
that are called duties. But if I can discharge its debts it
enables me to dispense with the popular code. If any one
imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment
one day.

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast
off the common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust
himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his
will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine,
society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him
as strong as iron necessity is to others!

If any man consider the present aspects of what is called
by distinction society, he will see the need of these
ethics. The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out,
and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are
afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death and
afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect
persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and
our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent,
cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all
proportion to their practical force and do lean and beg day
and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our
arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion we have
not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlor
soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength
is born.

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises they
lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is
ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges
and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards
in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to
his friends and to himself that he is right in being
disheartened and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy
lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the
professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school,
preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township,
and so forth, in successive years, and always like a cat falls
on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks
abreast with his days and feels no shame in not 'studying a
profession,' for he does not postpone his life, but lives
already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances. Let a
Stoic open the resources of man and tell men they are not
leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with
the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a man
is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations;
that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the
moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books,
idolatries and customs out of the window, we pity him no more
but thank and revere him;—and that teacher shall restore the
life of man to splendor and make his name dear to all history.

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a
revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their
religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes
of living; their association; in their property; in their
speculative views.

1. In what prayers do men allow themselves! That which they
call a holy office is not so much as brave and manly. Prayer
looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come
through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless
mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and
miraculous. Prayer that craves a particular commodity,
any thing less than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the
contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point
of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant
soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good.
But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness
and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and
consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he
will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The
prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the
prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar,
are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap
ends. Caratach, in Fletcher's Bonduca, when admonished to
inquire the mind of the god Audate, replies,—

"His hidden meaning lies in our endeavors;
Our valors are our best gods."

Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent
is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will.
Regret calamities if you can thereby help the sufferer;
if not, attend your own work and already the evil begins
to be repaired. Our sympathy is just as base. We come to
them who weep foolishly and sit down and cry for company,
instead of imparting to them truth and health in rough
electric shocks, putting them once more in communication
with their own reason. The secret of fortune is joy in our
hands. Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping
man. For him all doors are flung wide; him all tongues
greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our
love goes out to him and embraces him because he did not
need it. We solicitously and apologetically caress and
celebrate him because he held on his way and scorned our
disapprobation. The gods love him because men hated him.
"To the persevering mortal," said Zoroaster, "the blessed
Immortals are swift."

As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their
creeds a disease of the intellect. They say with those
foolish Israelites, 'Let not God speak to us, lest we die.
Speak thou, speak any man with us, and we will obey.'
Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother,
because he has shut his own temple doors and recites
fables merely of his brother's, or his brother's brother's
God. Every new mind is a new classification. If it prove a
mind of uncommon activity and power, a Locke, a Lavoisier, a
Hutton, a Bentham, a Fourier, it imposes its classification
on other men, and lo! a new system. In proportion to the
depth of the thought, and so to the number of the objects
it touches and brings within reach of the pupil, is his
complacency. But chiefly is this apparent in creeds and
churches, which are also classifications of some powerful
mind acting on the elemental thought of duty, and man's
relation to the Highest. Such is Calvinism, Quakerism,
Swedenborgism. The pupil takes the same delight in
subordinating every thing to the new terminology as a
girl who has just learned botany in seeing a new earth
and new seasons thereby. It will happen for a time that
the pupil will find his intellectual power has grown by
the study of his master's mind. But in all unbalanced
minds the classification is idolized, passes for the end
and not for a speedily exhaustible means, so that the
walls of the system blend to their eye in the remote
horizon with the walls of the universe; the luminaries
of heaven seem to them hung on the arch their master
built. They cannot imagine how you aliens have any right
to see,—how you can see; 'It must be somehow that you
stole the light from us.' They do not yet perceive that
light, unsystematic, indomitable, will break into any
cabin, even into theirs. Let them chirp awhile and call
it their own. If they are honest and do well, presently
their neat new pinfold will be too strait and low, will
crack, will lean, will rot and vanish, and the immortal
light, all young and joyful, million-orbed, million-
colored, will beam over the universe as on the first

2. It is for want of self-culture that the superstition
of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt,
retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They
who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the
imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like
an axis of the earth. In manly hours we feel that duty
is our place. The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays
at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any
occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands,
he is at home still and shall make men sensible by the
expression of his countenance that he goes, the missionary
of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a
sovereign and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the
globe for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence,
so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad
with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He
who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does
not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in
youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and
mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries
ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover
to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at
Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty and lose
my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on
the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me
is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that
I fled from. I seek the Vatican and the palaces. I affect to
be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not
intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

3. But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper
unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The
intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters
restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced
to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the
travelling of the mind? Our houses are built with foreign
taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments;
our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow
the Past and the Distant. The soul created the arts wherever
they have flourished. It was in his own mind that the artist
sought his model. It was an application of his own thought
to the thing to be done and the conditions to be observed.
And why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model? Beauty,
convenience, grandeur of thought and quaint expression are
as near to us as to any, and if the American artist will
study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by
him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the
day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of the
government, he will create a house in which all these will
find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be
satisfied also.

Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every
moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of
the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession.
That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man
yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where
is the master who could have taught Shakspeare? Where is the master who
could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every
great man is a unique. The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that part
he could not borrow. Shakspeare will never be made by the study of
Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too
much or dare too much. There is at this moment for you an utterance brave
and grand as that of the colossal chisel of Phidias, or trowel of the
Egyptians, or the pen of Moses or Dante, but different from all these.
Not possibly will the soul, all rich, all eloquent, with thousand-cloven
tongue, deign to repeat itself; but if you can hear what these patriarchs
say, surely you can reply to them in the same pitch of voice; for the
ear and the tongue are two organs of one nature. Abide in the simple and
noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart and thou shalt reproduce the
Foreworld again.

4. As our Religion, our Education, our Art look abroad, so
does our spirit of society. All men plume themselves on the
improvement of society, and no man improves.

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains
on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized,
it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is
not amelioration. For every thing that is given something is taken. Society
acquires new arts and loses old instincts. What a contrast between the
well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch, a pencil
and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose
property is a club, a spear, a mat and an undivided twentieth of a shed
to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men and you shall see
that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength. If the traveller
tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad axe and in a day or two
the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch,
and the same blow shall send the white to his grave.

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use
of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much
support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails
of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical
almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he
wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the
sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows
as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is
without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory;
his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases
the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether
machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by
refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in
establishments and forms some vigor of wild virtue. For
every Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the

There is no more deviation in the moral standard than in
the standard of height or bulk. No greater men are now
than ever were. A singular equality may be observed between
the great men of the first and of the last ages; nor can
all the science, art, religion, and philosophy of the
nineteenth century avail to educate greater men than
Plutarch's heroes, three or four and twenty centuries ago.
Not in time is the race progressive. Phocion, Socrates,
Anaxagoras, Diogenes, are great men, but they leave no
class. He who is really of their class will not be called
by their name, but will be his own man, and in his turn the
founder of a sect. The arts and inventions of each period
are only its costume and do not invigorate men. The harm of
the improved machinery may compensate its good. Hudson and
Behring accomplished so much in their fishing-boats as to
astonish Parry and Franklin, whose equipment exhausted the
resources of science and art. Galileo, with an opera-glass,
discovered a more splendid series of celestial phenomena
than any one since. Columbus found the New World in an
undecked boat. It is curious to see the periodical disuse
and perishing of means and machinery which were introduced
with loud laudation a few years or centuries before. The
great genius returns to essential man. We reckoned the
improvements of the art of war among the triumphs of science,
and yet Napoleon conquered Europe by the bivouac, which
consisted of falling back on naked valor and disencumbering
it of all aids. The Emperor held it impossible to make a
perfect army, says Las Cases, "without abolishing our arms,
magazines, commissaries and carriages, until, in imitation
of the Roman custom, the soldier should receive his supply
of corn, grind it in his hand-mill, and bake his bread

Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water
of which it is composed does not. The same particle does
not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only
phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation to-day, next
year die, and their experience with them.

And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments
which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away from
themselves and at things so long that they have come to esteem the religious,
learned and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate
assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property.
They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what
each is. But a cultivated man becomes ashamed of his property, out of
new respect for his nature. Especially he hates what he has if he see
that it is accidental,—came to him by inheritance, or gift, or crime;
then he feels that it is not having; it does not belong to him, has no
root in him and merely lies there because no revolution or no robber takes
it away. But that which a man is, does always by necessity acquire, and
what the man acquires is living property, which does not wait the beck
of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or storm, or bankruptcies,
but perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes. "Thy lot
or portion of life," said the Caliph Ali, "is seeking after
thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it." Our dependence
on these foreign goods leads us to our slavish respect for numbers. The
political parties meet in numerous conventions; the greater the concourse
and with each new uproar of announcement, The delegation from Essex! The
Democrats from New Hampshire! The Whigs of Maine! the young patriot feels
himself stronger than before by a new thousand of eyes and arms. In like
manner the reformers summon conventions and vote and resolve in multitude.
Not so, O friends! will the God deign to enter and inhabit you, but by
a method precisely the reverse. It is only as a man puts off all foreign
support and stands alone that I see him to be strong and to prevail. He
is weaker by every recruit to his banner. Is not a man better than a town?
Ask nothing of men, and, in the endless mutation, thou only firm column
must presently appear the upholder of all that surrounds thee. He who
knows that power is inborn, that he is weak because he has looked for
good out of him and elsewhere, and so perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly
on his thought, instantly rights himself, stands in the erect position,
commands his limbs, works miracles; just as a man who stands on his feet
is stronger than a man who stands on his head.

So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain
all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these
winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the
Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and
shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory,
a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick or the return of your absent
friend, or some other favorable event raises your spirits, and you think
good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring
you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of

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