The Way to Virtue

By Jin Jin

Emerson’s Self-Reliance and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience provide distinct answers to one question: what does it take to become virtuous? From their answers, I find that the two authors have fundamentally different views of human nature. Emerson holds that human nature is independent, harmonious, and free. Therefore, one can find the way to virtue by being self-reliant. On the contrary, Thoreau insinuates that human nature is dependent, chaotic, and slavish. Therefore, virtue relies on being in opposition to external authorities and imperfect conditions.


Emerson argues that self-reliance is a necessary condition for one to become virtuous, so “trust thyself” (50), for the way towards virtue is “wholly strange and new,” original, untaken, and unique to every individual (66). Without self-reliance, one cannot find her or his own path towards virtue, and one’s own path is the only path. To follow a path without

Statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson

self-reliance is to imitate or to conform, which is not a way to virtue but “a deliverance which does not deliver” (50). Emerson’s argument could invite two potential misinterpretations, which I find worth debating at length and contrasting with Thoreau’s. One misinterpretation is that self-reliance is an apolitical, anti-social, or isolationist way of life. The other misinterpretation creates a dichotomy between principle and practice. It is a false presumption that if virtue is not relative to individual preferences, then there must be a common practice for everyone to become virtuous when the external conditions are equal.

To be self-reliant means to seek for nothing outside oneself (Emerson 47n1). It requires one to live courageously amidst reality, and to work on the “plot of ground” that providence has given to that person (50). Following this definition, I must say that Emerson’s self-reliant man is not apolitical. He does not exclude himself from the society. He does not misconceive his own or human significance, nor does he isolate himself in absolute solitude, for the self-reliant man lives a life in accordance with his nature, in acceptance of his human condition and his time (50). Thus, a self-reliant person does not measure his significance according to external references; his virtue does not depend on how much he struggles against the external environment that is always imperfect. Such a person is great, for he keeps the “independence of solitude” while living a life “in the midst of the crowd” in harmony (55). By recognizing human capacity and greatness of such harmony, Emerson implies that it is facile to determine whether a man is self-reliant just by looking at external references, such as what he does as a job, how much money he makes, or whether he is persecuted unjustly (cf. Thoreau 135; 151; and 149).

In contrast, Thoreau finds it hard to harmonize the way to virtue with a life in the society, for “there is but little virtue in the action of masses of men” (140). In the absence of that harmony, Thoreau demands “at once a better government” and a better vision shared by the masses (133, emphasis in original). If those are not attainable, then one should choose to live an isolated and apolitical life (146). In Emerson’s terms, those demands do not demonstrate self-reliance, but reliance and “a poor external way of speaking” (67).

Henry David Thoreau

Emerson acknowledges that the society is the natural environment for human beings, which is always imperfect and not always in our control. One cannot live without the society because “no man can violate his nature” (58). When social changes take place, “for every thing that is given, something is taken” (77). Social progress is a moving image, if not human delusion, that does not alter the form of society (79). Thus, one is not being self-reliant by holding on to the wishful thinking that men are capable of perfecting everything in their society, or that people would become virtuous after external conditions are made perfect. If self-reliance is indeed necessary for virtue, then those wishful imaginations, even in good will, cannot lead to virtue.

Regarding the second misinterpretation—the dichotomy between perennial principles and ever-changing practices—I find that virtue is not relative in Emerson’s terms, but the path towards virtue ought to be unique and original for every person in accordance with one’s own condition. In the central paragraph of Self-Reliance, Emerson says that “when good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way” (66). Emerson describes, with caution, that the above statement is the “nearest approach” to put his “thought” in words, given that “the highest truth” “probably cannot be said” (66). It occurs to me that Emerson’s caution is grounded in the classical understanding that virtuous people are apt to choose the mean and avoid the excesses, yet the action towards the mean needs to be taken in relation to each person’s own condition (Aristotle 1107a1). In other words, virtue consists both in theoretical understanding and practical judgement, so it seems to be relative if we only consider what each individual does in order to become virtuous. This classical understanding of virtue helps explain Emerson’s claim that the way to virtue “shall exclude example and experience,” for it is a way “from man, not to man” (66).

Emerson “On Character”

Furthermore, self-reliance makes it possible for one to fulfill the meaning, the work, or the telos of life (50). I interpret the meaning of “work” in this context as the telos, because Emerson says that “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards”, and advises us to “accept the place the divine providence has found” for us (50). Those words indicate a providential purpose of human life, which is happiness that comes when one is dedicated to and excels at fulfilling their telos—this is the perennial principle. Overall, Emerson’s Self-Reliance reflects the classical understanding that principles and practices are complementary. Virtue enables human beings to achieve happiness, and happiness is the “highest good” of human life (Aristotle 1094a20). Virtue is not relative, but the way to virtue is relative to one’s own condition.

On the contrary, Thoreau is trapped in the false dichotomy of absolute principles and human practices. I say this because Thoreau’s theory of virtue relies on the society to be imperfect, and one’s way to virtue depends not on oneself but on the degree of external imperfectness (145-146). Thoreau asserts that “government is at best but an expedient” that, in most cases, fails to fix society’s supposed distortions, as “the government itself” is vulnerable to human vices, abuses, and perversions (131). In other words, cure is tainted by what it is designed to cure in the first place. Thoreau’s disobedience is not self-reliant; it denies the possibility of self-reliance. For instance, virtue is, “absolutely speaking,” a dependent variable, “the more money, the less virtue.” Thoreau asserts that it is because virtue is not required to earn money, but money, as an expedient, removes the “moral ground” from a man and makes virtue unnecessary (151). Such an understanding of virtue depends on external conditions.

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin in the woods, away from corrupting society

Cleverness in rhetoric notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Thoreau is happy. As Thoreau divines that virtue cannot sustain itself and is vulnerable in front of material or external conditions, his conception is a chaotic one that loses sight of human telos and lands on dual-excesses of pride and abasement. Following Thoreau’s conception, virtue becomes groundless when a person’s life is expedient or when there is an abundance of “means” for him. The more affluently a person lives, the less willingness he has towards the good (151-152). The presupposed dichotomy between virtue and wealth in Thoreau’s argument implies that he denies the significance of human choice within the realm of human nature. This argument reflects two extremes that are equally problematic. On one hand, “the best thing” that a rich man can do is to realize the “schemes” he had when he was poor (151). Thoreau underestimates human capacity by insinuating that external and material conditions impose hard limits to human choices and ways to virtue. On the other hand, Thoreau’s own choice to escape and be isolated from the society (146; 156), as well as to declare that the “true place for a just man” under an unjust government is but “a prison” (149), betray that he overestimates human significance by claiming that he, and those who live by his teaching, can live a life that (in Emerson’s view, at any rate) violates human nature (cf. Emerson 58). Altogether, Thoreau’s words reflect one who is overly proud of living ‘above’ human nature and abased by human reliance on external conditions at the same time.

Interestingly, Thoreau is fascinated by the thought of self-reliance. He vehemently criticizes “the American” for its “lack of intellect and cheerful self-reliance” (141-142). However, this criticism is directed to a collective identity, as if it can be self-reliant like a person. Contrary to Emerson’s “trust thyself” (50), and the call for us to learn self-reliance from the greatest thinkers who “spoke not what men, but what they thought” (49), Thoreau talks about self-reliance in a way that does not sound like his own thought, but a pre-established concept. In other words, Thoreau accuses his contemporary countrymen for lacking self-reliance without being self-reliant.

One can hardly speak of disobedience without targeting an external object that one disobeys. In Ginga Eiyū Densetsu, a Japanese space opera, there is a small band of democratic militants fighting for their independence and defending their last stronghold against Kaiser Reinhard von Lohengramm, the monarch who rules the rest of the cosmos. They chose a battle cry for their cause: ‘To hell, Kaiser!’ An eccentric pilot among them mumbled with disappointment that “we do not have much independence after all, for we cannot even say our cause without using the word Kaiser.” Being self-reliant and independent can be seen as incompatible with disobedience and grievances, for the idea of disobedience itself is dependent upon something other than self.

In addition, a self-reliant reader values the “sentiment” of texts more than “any thought they may contain” (Emerson 49). Sentiment is individual, for it is inseparable from human nature and the awareness of human individuality, before rationality and conformity take over (51). With that being said, I find that the sentiment in Civil Disobedience drifts further from self-reliance than its thought does. Everywhere I look in Thoreau’s text, I see calculations. There are calculations of force (133-134), of votes (140), and of dollars (154-155; 161-162). But most strikingly, there is this ‘miscalculation’ of thought that could be remedied if Thoreau had been faithful to his claim of self-reliance. In Thoreau’s quotation of Confucius:

Confucius said: “If a State is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a State is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are the subjects of shame” (Thoreau 153).

My knowledge tells me that it is a misquotation, and the sentiment it conveys is un-Confucian. In my view, it betrays Thoreau’s attempt to support his argument that virtue depends on external circumstances, especially on state power and political institutions. Nothing can be further from Confucius’s thought on this:

Riches and honors are what men desire. If it cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and meanness are what men dislike. If it cannot be avoided in the proper way, they should not be avoided. If a superior man abandon virtue, how can he fulfill the requirements of that name? (Confucius, The Analects: Li Ren, No. 5).

Ironically, Confucius’ words can be taken as a direct criticism of Thoreau’s dually-excessive view of human nature and his overemphasis of external conditions. Confucius recognizes that worldly and material desires are natural to human beings; a great man can have desires while being virtuous and true to himself. The harmony between worldly and virtuous life reflects the self-reliant way to virtue based on human nature, which is what we find throughout Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

In conclusion, a self-reliant person is independent amidst the crowd. He lives naturally as a social being and he has the capacity to become virtuous through practice. This is an orderly view of human nature. On the contrary, chaotic views cannot define human significance without external reference. Human nature so conceived is in need of external order or nurturing, and by which it can be described as slavish. Such a view demonstrates dual-excesses of pride and servitude, which is everything but self-reliant. As for the way to virtue, Emerson teaches us to “take the way from man, not to man” (66); Thoreau’s way is precisely the latter.

Works Cited


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, second edition. Translated by Terence Irwin. Hackett, 1999.


Confucius. The Analects: Li Ren. Translated by James Legge. Chinese Text Project,


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” The American Scholar, Self-Reliance, Compensation, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. American Book Company, 1893, pp. 49-81,


Tanaka, Yoshiki. Ginga Eiyū Densetsu. Tokuma Shoten, 1987.


Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Riverside Edition, Vol. X. Houghton Mifflin, 1893, pp. 131-70,