Emerson on self-reliance

Philosophy as a Way of Life
12 min readSep 24, 2019
Ralph Waldo Emerson was highly influenced by the Stoics (photo: Wikipedia)

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…

Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/