Trust Yourself: Emerson on Self-Reliance as the Essence of Genius and What It Means to Be a Nonconformist
By Maria Popova
“We all have the same inner life,” the great painter Agnes Martin observed. “The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.” Decades later, Cheryl Strayed considered the raw material of that recognition in an altogether magnificent conversation: “When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.” And yet we spend our lives mistrusting that innermost voice and instead deferring our truths to the voice of the outside world, turning to others, in ways subtle and staggering, to tell us who we are and what is real.
No one has made more beautiful nor more convincing a case for trusting our inner voice than Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) in his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” perhaps the best-known piece in his Essays and Lectures (public library | free download) — that endlessly rewarding trove of Emerson’s wisdom on the two pillars of friendship, the life of the mind, the key to personal growth, what beauty really means, and how to live with maximum aliveness.
At thirty-nine, Emerson writes:
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.
In a sentiment his soul-brother Henry David Thoreau would come to echo a decade later, Emerson laments the ease with which we accept the judgments and opinions of others as objective truth while dismissing our own — a lamentation all the timelier a century and a half later, as the 24-hour media cycle feeds us ready-made opinions under the guise of objective news:
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.
Nearly four decades before Nietzsche wrote that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Emerson admonishes that “imitation is suicide” and counsels:
The power which resides in [each person] is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
A century before the Golden Age of consumerism — that ultimate trance of commodified conformity from which we’re only just beginning to awaken — Emerson urges:
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… Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.
In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Wendell Berry’s beautiful observation that solitude makes our inner voices audible, Emerson adds:
The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
Complement this particular portion of Emerson’s wholly indispensable Essays and Lectures with Eleanor Roosevelt on conformity and integrity, Kierkegaard on why we conform, and Keats on how solitude opens our channels to truth and beauty.
Published April 6, 2016