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Emerson's Self Reliance vs. Douglass' Narrative of the Life Essay

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After reading both “Self Reliance,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson and “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” by Frederick Douglass, one might notice a trend in what both writers regard as the key to happiness or self-fulfillment. Emerson and Douglass both imply that acquiring knowledge is what people should strive for throughout their lives. However, their perceptions on the kind of knowledge should be attained is where their ideas diverge; Emerson is the one that encourages one to develop the soul whereas with Douglass, it is the mind.
     One of the primary issues that Emerson tried to convey was that one must follow what they believe is true for themselves and not listen to what other people think. He states, “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps perfect sweetness the independence of solitude(Emerson 151).” One of the definitions of the word “world” is “human society.” The word “opinion” means “a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter.” By putting these words together, Emerson is implying that the “world’s opinion” is the general point of view accepted by most of society. Emerson also uses the word, “solitude” which means, “the quality or state of being alone or remote from society.” By also using the word “solitude” in this sentence, he shows a contrast between the majority (society), and the individual. What Emerson suggests is that if one can live in a world full of people who think a certain way because they were taught to believe that way, but still hold your own ground and follow what you believe, you are a great person.
     Douglass also believes in following what is true for oneself despite what people around him think. This is evident when he says, “But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence (Douglass 75).” The word “true” means “being that which is the case rather than what is manifest or assumed,” and the word “false” means “inconsistent with the facts.” Douglass uses both of these words to convey the fact that he would rather believe his own thoughts and suffer the wrat...


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... and unhappy (Douglass 78).” Learning how to read was as big a step towards freedom for Douglass as it was back. It made him aware of the circumstances but it also made him realize how difficult it would be for him to ever find himself a free man. However, knowledge overpowers ignorance in the sense that his masters could never take his ability to read away from him and because Douglass now knew his condition, he knew that he deserved a better life.
     Both Emerson and Douglass had a huge impact on those who read their work. Their messages were both similar and different in their own ways. Emerson pushed the idea of unification with God through the soul while Douglass stood behind the development of the mind with the ability to read. However, both Emerson and Douglass
were for non-conformity and individualism. They were very much concerned with the growth of the individual, whether it be in mind or through the soul.



















Works Cited
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
New York: Penguin Group, 1982.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson. USA: Riverside
Editions, 1957.


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