The Great Man Theory of History as evidenced in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance

At the center of Emerson’s thesis are three ideas: distrust of social norms, recognition of genius in oneself, and the value of self-worth. These are also the virtues of Great Men as indicated in the theory. (Frinin, p.96) For example, great individuals that shaped the course of civilization were men of strong motivation, exemplary vision and self-belief. Of these characteristics, it is self-belief that enables and supports the other two. Since self-belief springs from individuality, Emerson’s assertion that “envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide“ is particularly prescient. When we analyze the lives of great men of history, we see how this attitude was manifest in all key moments in their lives. Whether we take rulers like Napoleon Bonaparte or Queen Elizabeth, or we consider the lives of scientists, philosophers and intellectuals, they are all united in belief in their convictions. Speaking for himself, Emerson writes, “My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady.”  (p.26)

Courage is another virtue of the great men of history according to the theory. (Frinin, p.96) Congruent with this, Emerson’s text alludes to the centrality of this virtue for living a great life. In a strong endorsement for practicing valor in our everyday lives, Emerson writes “the sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.” (p.45) If courage is the state of not being afraid, it naturally follows that we express our thoughts in a honest manner. When it comes to self-expression, Emerson condemns half-measures or half-truths. He says, “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents…but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.” (p.11) Hence, while being courageous in our dealings with society is rewarding, the failure to upkeep it will not even bring us forgiveness from God. Emerson thus swiftly links human action and divine sanction.

Works Cited:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, A Classic Essay by Emerson. Excerpted from Essays, First Series. Published August 1st 2007 by Arc Manor.

James, W. 2005 [1880]. Great Men and Their Environment. Kila, MT: Kessinger Publishing

Grinin, Leonid 2010. The Role of an Individual in History: A Reconsideration. Social Evolution & History, Vol. 9 No. 2 (pp. 95–136).

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