In "Self-Reliance," by Ralph Emerson, what does society do to individuality? 

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Rebecca Owens eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This essay is one of my favorites. Emerson claims that "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." What he means is that society kills individuality.

Societies demand that members conform to societal rules. This can be good, since there are good laws, but as a Transcendentalist, Emerson believed that each person contained a "particle of God" or a spark of divinity that would guide him/her, so there was really no need for society to govern actions.

When, because of tradition or a fear of change, society insists upon "a foolish consistancy," then society prohibits individual thought or action. Society tends to squelch creativity because of this fear of the new.

In summary, when society limits our thoughts or actions in order to make us conform to its ideals, then it denies us our individuality. To be a real "man" one must also be a "nonconformist." Of course, this nonconformity is likely to make you misunderstood or even rejected by society. But no great changes were ever made by conformists. All the truly great people throughout time, those who effected real change, were misunderstood by their societies. That is in part why Emerson said that "to be great is to be misunderstood."

For a great discussion on the themes in "Self-Reliance' click the link below.

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