In Emerson's "Self Reliance," how does one define "society" and one's place in it?

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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. 

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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.