Emerson's 21 Principles of Self-Reliance
Why intelligence and knowledge are overrated, while honesty and courage are underrated.
One of the greatest essays ever written, and one of my personal favorites, is Emerson's Self-Reliance (1841).
We recently held a seminar on this text so, while it's top of mind, I’d like to share with you the 21 best ideas in this ever-relevant essay.
I think I believe just about every statement here, and if you really apply even a few, they might just change your life.
1. Most people do not trust their own beliefs. The essence of genius is simply to trust yourself—to infer that whatever seems most true in your heart is most true in reality—and for everybody else, too, despite whatever they may claim.
2. There is hardly anything more painful than lacking the courage to voice a belief, only to hear someone else express it later.
3. When we admire the Great Men and the Great Books, we often do so mistakenly: For the great men and great books are not examples of revering great men and great books! The Great Men and Great Books are often examples of self-reliant individuals disrespecting the previous Great Men and Great Books by irreverently trusting their own inner calling. If you really admire Great Men and Great Books then you must have the courage and self-trust to not put them on a pedestal; you must wake up every morning trusting that your inner light is every bit as bright.
4. Learning to interpret your inner light is a skill that must be practiced continually over time. It is not "anything goes." One must be accountable to it, as if it is an external constraint. One can be more or less accurate in reading it.
5. If you ever envy anyone, it is only because you are ignorant—either about their hidden failures and sufferings, or about your own abundance and potential.
6. Absolutely no other person knows, or can know, what you are capable of. It is in nobody's interest—including your parents, your spouse, your peers—to fully appreciate your maximum potential. Society systematically underestimates you, for its own ulterior motives.
7. Nothing great is ever produced without courage. If you are not a little scared to do it, then it is not God's work. Goodness must have claws.
8. Self-reliance works because the inner light is divine, it is straightforwardly a relationship to God.
9. Amor fati. Love everything about your station. No matter how lowly or failed or unimpressive your conditions, if you give honest voice to them with great spirit and courage then your genius can be as substantial as anyone's.
10. The accuracy and goodness of the child's naive pronouncements corroborate the inner light.
11. The inner light decreases in clarity as we ascend in society.
12. The integrity of your own mind should be your first priority. This priority should be non-negotiable because it is upstream of everything else in life, except for the divine (to which it is connected).
13. Truth is more important than love because truth allows for authentic love and prohibits false love, whereas mere love allows for false love which is not love at all.
14. What society calls good and bad is often completely wrong, and often systematically wrong for ulterior reasons. A mature person has no choice but to decide what is good and bad from first principles, and any ultimate first principle must involve, to some degree, the inner light.
15. Naiveté and provincialism are underrated, good manners and fine speech are overrated.
16. Travel is for the unadventurous.
17. Intelligence and knowledge are overrated, honesty and courage are the more scarce factors: Alone they are enough to produce the greatest work in the world. If you feel you can't compete on intelligence and knowledge, crush your competition with honesty and courage!
18. Consistency is nothing to worry about. A concern for consistency marks a weak mind and weak spirit who is not self-reliant. Be honest at all times, and over the course of your life, you will naturally amount to a meaningful coherence—despite any number of oscillations or missteps.
19. Never quote a saint or a sage when you can learn from them, digest their teachings, and restate their truths in your own voice. How do you think they became a saint or sage? The truth is common property.
20. Strong intellects who do not believe in God will generally not learn much from the inner light; they do not recognize truth unless it comes in the phraseology of society.
21. Whenever you are getting closer to the good, you can be certain that it will not come in the form of someone else's words. You will not know it by pre-existing signs. The correct path for any individual is necessarily unique, strange, and incommensurate.
Inspired by Self-Reliance (1841) in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.