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

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tnoh | eNotes Newbie

Posted April 23, 2008 at 11:08 AM via web

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

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

Posted April 24, 2008 at 2:20 AM (Answer #1)

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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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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted November 28, 2014 at 6:28 PM (Answer #2)

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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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