Emerson’s Self-Reliance is a beautiful piece of prose for any reader that can parse archaic English. I had not read it for many years, but when I read it recently I realized that I had taken its claims as self-evident for much of my life. Considering that my life has not been exceptionally successful, perhaps Emerson’s recommendations should be called into question!
To present the ideas to a broader audience, I decided to strip his essay down to the essentials and re-write it in highly simplified English, along with background information.
The resulting monstrosity will be painful to read, and in a spirit of nearly-plagiaristic cruelty, I am going to inflict it upon my innocent readers as follows:
A genius is a person who frequently speaks exceptionally good thoughts. Every person has the potential to speak some thoughts that are exceptionally good. However, most people lack the courage to speak honestly, and thus most people never speak about their best ideas. Instead, most people wait for a genius to speak in public, and when they hear the wonderful ideas of that genius, they recognize ideas that they had intuited earlier.
Trust yourself. If you complain about your circumstances, you are not trusting yourself. You were born in your country for a reason. You have the family and friends you do for a reason. Everything that happens in your life will make sense if you trust yourself and act according to your intuition. Rely on yourself; act according to what you truly believe.
Society always tries to crush individuals who trust themselves. … Most people will want you to conform to society. Most people will hate self-reliant people. …
Whoever wants to be an adult must be a nonconformist. …
Very often, cruel and selfish people pretend to be generous and kind. For example, suppose a selfish white man named Adam lives in America with a son named Bruce and a servant named Calvin. However, Adam does not treat Bruce and Calvin with kindness. Instead, Adam complains about a stranger in Africa who owns slaves, and Adam demands that the American army invade Africa to free the slaves.
If Adam were truly a good person, he would trust himself, he would love Bruce and respect Calvin. But because Adam does not trust his intuition, he ignores Bruce and Calvin. Instead, Adam shouts about invasion of Africa, and if he gains political power, he will cause many deaths. Don’t be like Adam; take care of your own neighborhood and don’t worry about the rest of the world until your home is cared for.
Insincere people talk about kindness, but few people do kind things sincerely. Many people feel guilt about doing bad things, so they try to improve their souls by doing good things. A foolish man might drive while drunk on Friday, then give money to charity on Saturday because he feels guilty and he is worried that his neighbors might gossip about his drunk-driving. He is trying to buy a good reputation.
The self-reliant person does not try to be forgiven. The self-reliant person does not try to buy a good reputation. The self-reliant person trusts his intuition about how to act. The self-reliant person acts without worrying about what other people will think. The self-reliant person would rather do a few good actions sincerely than do many good actions without sincerity.
Many foolish people will always try to tell others about duty. Abagail might try to tell Betsy what Betsy’s duty is, and Abagail might also try to tell Clara what Clara’s duty is. However, any person who is self-reliant will trust his own intuition and will ignore what other people tell him about his duty. Many fools try to pressure people into accepting a fake sense of duty. Insincere people can be pressured to do things that they don’t believe in. The self-reliant person cannot be influenced by pressure.
If you do something without sincerity, you will weaken your willpower. But if you do what you truly believe to be your duty, then honest people will be able to understand you. Don’t follow the crowd.
Some American children play games where one child covers his eyes and tries to listen to the voices of the other children, so he can move closer to them. Many American adults similarly close their eyes to the truth and try to listen to the foolish voices of the crowd. This conformity makes them liars. They cannot be true and sincere. But if you choose nonconformity, the crowd will try to punish you, scare you, and hurt you.
Many people are afraid to admit that they have been wrong. For example, you might start smoking Camel cigarettes when you are sixteen years old. All your friends notice that you always smoke Camels, and you talk about how you are loyal to the Camel cigarette. Then your friends expect you to stay loyal to the Camel cigarette, even though the cigarette harms your health. If you notice that the cigarettes cause unpleasant coughing, but you keep smoking them because your friends expect you to smoke, you are putting your friends’ opinions over your own physical comfort.
Many foolish politicians, scholars, and priests are loyal to bad ideas and bad habits. They don’t want to admit that they have bad habits, and so they suffer with the pain of their bad habits. If you want to be honest, say what you think right now, even if it contradicts what you have said in the past. Don’t worry that you will be misunderstood. Follow your own standards and beliefs, even when you are surrounded by crowds of people who try to persuade you to follow their beliefs. … If you ask fools for their approval, they will criticize you and shout at you. If you don’t ask for their approval, they will have fewer opportunities to shout at you.
Many fools do not like their neighbors, but they invite their neighbors to dinner. These dinners are unpleasant for the host and guest. Speak the truth. Do not be a host if you don’t sincerely feel hospitable. Do not pretend to like people whom you do not sincerely like. Do not pretend to agree with people just because they expect you to agree with them. If you don’t agree with people, don’t associate with them. … When you trust yourself, you find that you can do amazing actions which you would have thought impossible.
Many Christians pray “give us today our daily bread.” Some Christians pray for big houses, expensive automobiles, and many other things. Do not pray to a god by begging for some desirable item. If you are in harmony with God, you will see that action is the best kind of prayer. Action requires willpower; bad prayers prevent the development of willpower.
Some Christians steal things, then feel sorry about it and pray to God for forgiveness, but they keep what they have stolen. This kind of prayer is a disease of the willpower. Do not feel regret. Fix the problem if you can. If there is a problem you can’t fix, ignore it and find a problem that you can fix. If you have stolen something in secret, don’t feel bad about it. Instead of feeling emotional, you can go to the person, give the stolen thing back, and apologize.
Bad prayer is a disease of the willpower, and bad beliefs are a disease of the mind. Many fools start by ignoring their intuition and failing to trust themselves. This causes them to distract themselves with material goods like big houses and expensive clothes. They will respect a person who has expensive goods, even if that person lacks sincerity. Then they fear that thieves will take their goods, so they try to expand the government, increase taxes, and put policemen everywhere.
A wise man cares about his sincerity and doesn’t care about his material goods. A wise man doesn’t want to own any material good that he has not earned. Material property can be taken away, but your soul is who you are, and you build your soul with every action you take. … Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.