According to "Self-Reliance," does Emerson believe that society limits individual freedom?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of America's greatest minds, a man of wisdom and clairvoyance. For, he wrote,

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater....It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Emerson fully believed in the sanctity of the individual; he states that by becoming a compliant part of society, man forfeits his personal liberty as he can no longer have individual thought, individual act; in short, freedom in the true sense of the word since when man stops thinking on his own, he becomes less than a man, a creature only led by what Emerson calls in his essay "Education" the "opium of custom." Indeed, the only law that can be sacred is that law that is part of man's own nature: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." To Emerson, what must always separate man from the animal is his ability to think and act on his own; otherwise, he is nothing more than part of the "joint-stock" company that decides for the others.

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luannw | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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Emerson says that the problem with society is that its goal is to conform people ("The virtue most in request is conformity,"). He goes on to say that the conformity then robs people of their ability to think for themselves and to be independent thinkers because it becomes so easy to simply follow the crowd rather than form original thoughts.  Furthermore, he says that society "...whips you with its displeasure," if one is a non-conformist meaning that one who does not conform to the general rules and ways of society are considered outcasts and are shunned or worse.  So, yes, Emerson did believe that society limited individual freedom.

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The short answer to this question is a resounding "yes."  To Emerson, the individual (mind, body, and spirit) absolutely trumps society.  In fact, Emerson spends most of his time in "Self-Reliance" being disgusted by society.  The quotation above is paramount, but there is a line left out of it from the beginning that, in this eNotes Educator's opinion, is key:

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.

What "voices," you ask?  The voices of individuality.  These are what we here in solitude.  Enter the world, and the voices blend in with the crowd. Immediately after saying this, the quotation in the above answer appears.  Emerson considers society to be "in conspiracy" against that individuality.  To show us how this work, Emerson makes an analogy to a company with "joint-stock."  Better to eat than to secure "liberty."  Further, customs and names are its friends, not creators and realities.

Emerson grows from being disgusted at society to actually being ashamed of society:

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.

Note the importance to a society (and, further, to a large corporation) of a "badge" or a "name."  An individual seeking to blend in is praised for both.  Why?  Because he or she then ceases to be an individual.

Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. ... All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.

 

Here we find that society as "a wave" can never end with the improvement of the individual.  Any individual who desires to improve society forfeits his or her individuality.  The analogy here, of course, is that of society being compared to a wave.  The water molecules in the wave (the individuals) never move.  They simple stay where they are in an endless circle (if you remember the description of a wave in elementary school science).  It is only an illusion that the wave is moving the water forward.

In conclusion, I find it ironic that it is always considered very "American" to be an individual and, yet, we are still all part of American "society."  How wonderful that we have eloquent writers such as Emerson to remind us about individuality and truth.

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