Ralph Waldo Emerson entered Harvard in 1817. In 1841, he published his first volume of essays, including Self-Reliance. The essay deals with an essential paradox of life: that to live at peace in society we must in fact break with society. To be approved of, we must act without regard to others’ approval. To win the support of others, we must act alone.
Richard Brodie, developer of the Microsoft Word program has updated the work to make the power and wisdom of Emerson’s work accessible to a new generation of readers.
Below is a sample of the entries (in no particular order).
Be a Nonconformist
If you want to be a human being, be a nonconformist. To make a lasting contribution, don’t let yourself be limited by what is labeled good, but instead explore for yourself if it is good.
Nothing is truly sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Declare yourself honorable to yourself and the world will rally behind you.
The other terror that scares us from our self-trust is our consistency: a reverence for our past actions or words. Other people have no other data for computing our orbit than our past actions, and we hate to disappoint them. But why look back over your shoulder? Why drag around this corpse of your memory, afraid to contradict something you once said in this or that public place?
Suppose you do contradict yourself—so what?
It seems to be common wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, even in acts of pure memory, but to replay the past for renewed judgment by the eyes of the present, always living in a new day.
I hope we’ve finally heard the last of conformity and consistency. Let’s make fun of those words from now on. Instead of sitting in chairs around a meeting table, let’s sprawl on cushions. Let’s never make excuses and apologize any more. A great man is coming to eat at my house. I don’t want to please him; I want him to want to please me.
My stand for humanity is one of kindness, but also of truth.
Let’s rip into the flat mediocrity and cheap contentment of the times. Let’s confront all fashions, business, and authority with the ultimate lesson of history: that in everyone’s work there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working.
That real men and women don’t belong to any other time or place; they’re the center of everything. Where they are, nature is. They set the standard for you and every human being and every event.
The Conspiracy of Society
Even if we’re able to hear these voices of self-reliance when we’re alone, they grow faint and inaudible as we go out into the world.
Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the humanity of every one of its members.
Society is a publicly held corporation. The stockholders agree, in order to maximize return on their investment, to sacrifice everyone’s liberty and uniqueness. The most valued ethic is conformity. Self-reliance is its opposite.
The Company Way is not truth and creativity, but labels and customs.
The complete work (pdf) can be downloaded from here.