Society is the force one must push back against to achieve self-reliance and learn to understand one's individual destiny, according to Emerson. Society is the collective force of conformity that bends individuals to its will through tradition, family, and education, keeping itself strong at the expense of not allowing people to follow their inner leadings. Emerson asserts that society is undergirded by an "unintelligent brute force." It is a collective to which we surrender our "liberty." He also says that the collective force of society ensures that
our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us.
Emerson, therefore, strongly encourages young people to look into their own souls and find out for themselves what they are meant to do, without relying on parents, families, or traditions. Every heart vibrates to its own string, Emerson says, and the individual has to honor that, even if it upsets one's family or community.
Emerson cites many of the great people in history who dared to follow their own destiny even though their societies condemned them for it, mentioning, among others, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Galileo, and Newton. Today, we are grateful for them for forging their own ways because their individualism helped the world as a whole to advance.
The essay is an example of the American emphasis on individualism, which has been part of the nation's ethos since its founding.
Emerson says that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members," that
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.
In other words, society glorifies conformity to man-made rules, laws, and customs. A great man should be able to decide for himself what is wrong or right, without buckling under the weight of societal expectations. In this context, a society could be defined as a group of people who are brought together by shared customs or traditions. When a person operates outside of his or her society’s traditions, he or she is considered an outcast. Thus, the society discourages independent thinking among its members. The society is quick to judge and label and uses this judgement to further enslave its members to its expectations. However, great characters are able to “act from their own original views” and be of great help to their societies. A society evolves with time. New traditions come up and the old ones are discarded, yet little advancement is made. This is because for every gain made, there is a loss, e.g. “society gains new arts and loses old instincts." Modern society has the advantage of many inventions that it can make use of. The downside to this technology is that many people choose to rely on their property instead of their intellect.
To Emerson, society is a governing group that defines what is acceptable thinking and what is not. Thus, conformity to this thinking is demanded of all, and individualism, therefore, becomes a threat to this body that calls itself "society." According to Emerson, the self-reliant individual, therefore, has no place in society because society is the adversary of the independent thinking man. In his essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson extols his mantra of "trust thyself": The individual must not listen to the conspiratorial dictates of the "joint-stock company" of a society that wishes to dictate to people what they must do and think.
This essay of Emerson's is especially relevant in the America of today as conformity and imitation have become too much the norm and the largesse of the ruling society and what John Stuart Mill termed the "tyranny of the majority" have squelched individualism, independent thinking, and freedom.
Emerson uses a very interesting analogy to define society, which he described as being opposed to self-reliance. He compares society to a joint-stock company, and as a result, he builds up his picture of how society has become an institution that deprives its members of basic freedoms central to self-reliance:
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone 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. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Society therefore is an agreement that, through its aim of providing food to each of its members, requires that those members sacrifice their freedom and manhood. This is because the most important thing that is needed for society to work is, Emerson believes, conformity. There is no room in society for those who do not buy in to this joint-stock company, as this will anger others who have sacrificed their freedoms to get their bread. Society, therefore is directly opposed to self-reliance, and society only stands for and supports pre-existing traditions rather than new ideas and the realities of life. To be a member of society is to be a conformist, and this makes self-reliance impossible, according to Emerson.