Emerson on self-reliance

The American Transcendentalists, particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, where clearly influenced by the ancient Stoics, especially Seneca. I have explored such influence in Thoreau’s famous essay on civil disobedience, and defended him, so to speak, from some of his modern critics, such as Hannah Arendt. Here I wish to take up another influential transcendentalist piece of writing, “Self-reliance,” authored by Thoreau’s friend and mentor, Emerson. Again we will see obvious echoes of Seneca, though there are also some interesting distinctions between Emerson and the ancient Stoics, on points where I lean toward the latter rather than the former.

(Page numbers for Emerson’s quotes refer to The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Brooks Atkinson, The Modern Library.)

Emerson writes this essay in defense of his conception of self-reliance, which bears a clear family resemblance with the attitude classically associated with the Stoic figure of the sage and how she will behave in the world. Although he admires the genius and independence of thought of Moses, Plato, and Milton, Emerson argues that we should look into our own minds to decide how to live our lives, not to “bards and sages” (p. 132). 

Letter XXIII from Seneca to his friend Lucilius is often entitled “On the futility of learning maxims,” and there Seneca too says that we should think for ourselves, not mindlessly quote other people, be they sages or not:

“‘This is what Zeno said.’ But what have you yourself said? ‘This is the opinion of Cleanthes.’ But what is your own opinion?” (Letters to Lucilius, XXIII.7)

But the Stoics also argued that human knowledge comes from communal learning, beginning within one’s family and then extending to what we absorb from good teachers and good books. Only the sage is self-reliant, and even she only arrives to that exalted stage with the help of others. We are eminently social animals, and everything we do — including learning — is a social activity.

Emerson reminds us that non-conformity is frowned upon, but that this should not deter us from thinking for ourselves. Which is certainly true enough. Yet, when he goes on to say “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist” (p. 134) he surely goes too far. Human progress is made possible by standing on the shoulders of others (whether they be giants or not, pace Newton), not by reinventing the wheel at every generation. Non-conformity for its own sake is just as bad as conformity as a default state.

In the very same paragraph, however, Emerson strikes an obviously Stoic note when he tells us that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” That is definitely the recurring message we get from both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, for instance:

“You are composed of three things: body, breath (life), intelligence. Of these the first two are yours insofar as it is your duty to take care of them; but the third alone is truly yours.” (Meditations XII.3)

Indeed, Epictetus’ entire approach to Stoicism can be summarized as the notion that we should take utmost care of our ruling faculty (hegemonikon) so that we can exercise and sharpen our judgments (prohairesis).

Still on p. 134, Emerson elaborates: “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.” This is very reminiscent of two crucial Stoic concepts: the notion that “good” and “bad” are terms that should be applied only to what is under our control, which reduces to our own judgments and opinions, nothing else. And that we should live “according to nature,” that is, according to the (human) nature of social animals capable of reason. Emerson strikes me as making a more narrow claim, that what is right or wrong is what is in line, or goes against, our individual nature, thus implicitly denying the Stoic claim to the universality of the human condition.

Emerson occasionally dips into territory that makes him uncharitable toward fellow human beings, which is definitely not in line with Stoic philosophy. For instance, on p. 135, he writes: “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.” This strikes me as insufferably elitist, and downright callous. Compare it with this bit, from Epictetus:

“If you have been placed in a position above others, are you automatically going to behave like a despot? Remember who you are and whom you govern – that they are kinsmen, brothers by nature, fellow descendants of Zeus.” (Discourses I.13.4)

(Note: “Zeus,” for the Stoics, was a generic name that they used interchangeably with Nature and the Cosmos. No need to think of the Olympian god who was fond of having sex with anything that moves.)

A little later on Emerson takes on what he thinks is another scourge of the self-reliant person: an exaggerated preoccupation with consistency. He famously writes (p. 138): “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.” Ah, but they key there is foolish consistency. If he means that we should be flexible and adapt to circumstances, no objection on my part. But if he means that we should not worry too much about the consistency of our philosophy of life (“adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines”) then I most certainly do object. An inconsistent personal philosophy is liable to have the same disastrous consequences of an inconsistent policy on the part of a country: actions become erratic, other people don’t know whether they can trust us, and we ourselves lose our moral compass. Not a good recipe for a eudaimonic life.

Yet another moment in which Emerson sounds like a Stoic, and yet bends in a different direction, is when he says: “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” (p. 148). The first bit is in complete agreement with Stoic principles. According to the dichotomy of control, the past is certainly not up to us, meaning that we cannot change it. So regret is not a Stoic value. Instead, what we should do is precisely what Emerson says: start doing something that ameliorates the effects of past events. And, I would add, reflect on the past with the aim of learning from it, so perhaps to be less likely to repeat the same mistakes in the future. But even the blunt Epictetus parts with Emerson in the second bit, where he says that we should not commiserate with others, but instead impart them harsh truths:

“When you see anyone weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil, but discriminate and be ready to say, ‘What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself — for another man might not be hurt by it — but the view he chooses to take of it.’ As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him and, if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly, too.” (Enchiridion 16)

That is, Epictetus makes a distinction between the Stoic approach, which is one of awareness of the realities of the world and self-improvement, and what non-Stoics expect from us. It is of no use, and in fact even a bit harsh, to say to someone who doesn’t buy into Stoic precepts, that he is not really facing a catastrophe, because the only bad things for us are our own incorrect judgments. It matters that we can make a distinction between what is and what is not up to us, but it also matters that we treat other human beings with sympathy, regardless of whether or not they agree with our philosophy.

At the beginning of the second section of “Self-reliance,” Emerson tackles the issue of the motivations for traveling: “It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Traveling, 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.” (p. 149)

Setting aside that Emerson traveled extensively through Europe, and Italy, in 1833, and went to England, Europe, and Egypt in 1872, the issue here is one of attitude and motivation, and it is most clearly explained by Seneca:

“The mere place avails little for this purpose, unless the mind is fully master of itself, and can, at its pleasure, find seclusion even in the midst of business; the man, however, who is always selecting resorts and hunting for leisure, will find something to distract his mind in every place. Socrates is reported to have replied, when a certain person complained of having received no benefit from his travels: ‘It serves you right! You travelled in your own company!’” (Letters to Lucilius, CIV.7)

The point here is that to travel in order to escape from our problems is futile, since the very person we are attempting to distance ourselves from cannot help but to come along with us. Still, that doesn’t mean that there are no positive benefits of travel, from leisure to learning about other people and culture. Here the sternness of Emerson is in stark contrast with the playfulness of Socrates.

Yet another bit where Emerson strikes a Stoic note, and yet manages to come across as more dire than the Stoics, is in the fourth section of “Self-reliance”: “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.” (p. 152)

Again, compare with Seneca:

“Wealth, however, blinds and attracts the mob, when they see a large bulk of ready money brought out of a man’s house, or even his walls crusted with abundance of gold, or a retinue that is chosen for beauty of physique, or for attractiveness of attire. The prosperity of all these men looks to public opinion; but the ideal man, whom we have snatched from the control of the people and of Fortune, is happy inwardly.” (Letters to Lucilius, CXIX.11)


“Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.” (Letters to Lucilius, II.6)

The Stoics were not ashamed of wealth and property, nor did they hate the gifts of Fortuna (despite, to be fair, the occasional use by Seneca of the word “despise” applied to externals, which however he means in the sense of “do not depend from”). For us these are all matters of preferred indifference. Wealth, property, and the like, have value, but not the kind of value that virtue has. So they may be appropriately selected by the Stoic practitioner, so long as they don’t get in the way of living virtuously. Contra Emerson, then, there is a big difference between “inheritance, or gift, or crime.” Acquiring wealth through crime is obviously not virtuous. Getting it by way of inheritance or gift is fine, so long as we use that wealth well (meaning, for the benefit of the human cosmopolis), and we remember that Fortuna can take it away just as easily as she bestowed it on us.

“Self-reliance” ends on one more Stoic note: “So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and loose 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 shall 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 principles.” (p. 153)

Seneca is the proper comparison once more:

“No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths. The very day the ships have made a brave show in the games, they are engulfed.” (Letters to Lucilius, IV.7)


“The wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps towards mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises Fortune.” (Letters to Lucilius, IX.13)

Again, “despise” here means “does not depend on.” While the first quote from Seneca sounds very much like Emerson in acknowledging the fickleness of Fortuna, the second recognizes the limits of self-reliance even for a Stoic. We do depend on other people for our existence. It is in terms of happiness, understood as eudaimonia, in the sense of a life worth living, that we can be self-sufficient. Seneca puts this even more clearly when he talks about the attitude of the sage toward friendship:

“The wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.” (Letters to Lucilius, IX.3)

Self-sufficiency, in other words, does not have to imply scorn for others, or for favorable material circumstances. I’m not an Emerson scholar, so I hesitate to elaborate further, but I do wonder whether his attitude of awe toward the greats of the past (he mentions Socrates, Anaxagoras, Diogenes, Franklin, Galileo, Columbus, Napoleon, Washington, Bacon, Newton, Shakespeare, Scipio, and several others!) doesn’t lead him to an over-reliance, so to speak, on self-reliance. 

The idea that we ought to be autonomous in terms of our own happiness is a good one, and Stoicism approaches it by way of the internalization of the dichotomy of control: we focus our efforts on what is up to us, that is, our judgments, opinions, and decisions to act. We then develop an attitude of equanimity toward externals: sometimes Fortuna will smile on us, sometimes she won’t. That’s life. But Emerson seems to want to push that line of thought further, almost, I think, to the breaking point. This is particularly problematic in the passages, one of which I mentioned above, where he seems disdainful, rather than sympathetic (as a Stoic would be) to the plague of people who have not been enlightened by Stoicism or Transcendentalism, or other similar philosophies of life. When in doubt, err on the side of sympathy for your fellow human beings.

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