Emerson begins "Self-Reliance" by defining genius: "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." Every educated man, he writes, eventually realizes that "envy is ignorance" and that he must be truly himself. God has made each person unique and, by extension, given each person a unique work to do, Emerson holds. To trust one's own thoughts and put them into action is, in a very real sense, to hear and act on the voice of God.
Up to this point, Emerson has made a case that individuals have not only a right but also a responsibility to think for themselves and that neither societal disapproval nor concerns about consistency should discourage these. He now writes that individuals who obey the admonition to "trust thyself" should value themselves highly and consider themselves equal to the great men of history. Returning to a point made earlier, Emerson states that when men trust themselves they are actually trusting the divine, which exists in all men and which he calls "the aboriginal Self," "Spontaneity," and "Instinct."
Emerson was known for his repeated use of the phrase "trust thyself." "Self-Reliance" is his explanation—both systematic and passionate—of what he meant by this and of why he was moved to make it his catch-phrase. Every individual possesses a unique genius, Emerson argues, that can only be revealed when that individual has the courage to trust his or her own thoughts, attitudes, and inclinations against all public disapproval.
Emerson began to shape his lecture material into essays and books in the early 1840s. These works expound various aspects of Emerson's transcendentalist philosophy. The core of transcendentalism is the idea that truth resides throughout creation and is grasped intuitively, not rationally. From this core belief, Emerson helped fashion American transcendentalism, which particularly stood against materialism, institutionalized religion, and slavery. Emerson's strong belief in the integrity of the individual is summarized in his oft-repeated phrase, "trust thyself," and given full expression in his famous essay "Self-Reliance," published in his (First Series) in 1841.
Emerson urges the reader to live by his instinct and listen to his intuition, "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." Don’t fear your original thoughts, trust them and live accordingly....
Emerson urges the reader to live by his instinct and listen to his intuition, " thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." Don’t fear your original thoughts, trust them and live accordingly.
The logical inconsistency that is inherent in Emerson's leaning upon one famous shoulder after another is the most serious problem and has nothing to do with cultural changes over time. It is simply that Emerson's core argument that readers should ignore the great men of the past and instead trust themselves should prevent him from using the great men of the past to justify his own thinking. Emerson writes, in essence, that Moses, Plato, and Milton were exemplars of self-reliance and are now regarded as great men; therefore readers should follow in their footsteps. But there is a double contradiction here. First, given that Emerson is preaching "trust thyself," why should he rely on Moses, Plato, and Milton, instead of on himself, to make his point? And second, given that Emerson wants readers to be nonconforming, original individualists, why should they care to become "great"; i.e., why should they strive to be highly regarded by society or posterity?
It begins with a restatement of themes made familiar by the self-reliant man who has the courage to make his own spontaneous impressions into universal symbols (as Wordsworth had done) will find himself triumphing over the tyranny of time. "Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment." Hence Emerson's First Commandment: "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." What Emerson means by self-trust is given to us, as usual, not by definition but by analogy: it is something like the pure self-centeredness of infancy, something again like the "nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner." It is action without self-consciousness, action without concern for (or even awareness of) consequences—the sort of thing Blake had in mind when he praised Jesus as one who "acted from impulse, not from rules."