What is the relation of individuality and society in "Civil Disobedience" and "Self Reliance"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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For Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, society is often the adversary of the individual.  For Emerson, society "everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members."  Society would control the ideas of men so that men conform to those of the majority who rule.  With the consistency demanded by society, Emerson notes, "a great soul has nothing to do."

Likewise, Thoreau feels that many men lived lives of "quiet desperation" when they conform.  For, there are not able to live life "deliberately" as they should if they live lives of conformity.  In Walden, Thoreau writes,

The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men, and so with the paths which the mind travels.

Since man's mind is so impressionable, it should not be subjected to the power of the mighty; rather, it should be able to be in communion with nature and learn on its own.  In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau writes that government and society

"no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it."

The progress of government, Thoreau continues, "is a progress toward a true respect for the individual." But, like Emerson, Thoreau sees only "a State" [society] that holds too much authority over the individual.  For this reason, Thoreau feels that

Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.  The obedient must be slaves.

Both Emerson and Thoreau believe in the importance, the very divinity of the individual.  Those who would be men must fight against the control of societies that demand conformity, rather than the individualism which makes one truly a man.

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