In "Self-Reliance" does society conspire against self-reliance?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In his seminal work, "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson touts the merits of rugged individualism.  Conspiring against this individualism is society, which is against the manhood of all its members.  Emerson declares,

Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bred to each sharholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.  The virtue in most request is conformity.  Self-reliance is its aversion.

Emerson states that if a man would truly be a man, an individual, he must become and remain a non-conformist.  As his associate, Henry David Thoreau, has stated, he must "march to the beat of a different drummer."  For Emerson, conformity--"a foolish consistency"--is the "hobgoblin of little minds," a fear of rejection or disapproval from society.  But, in order to be an individual, in order to be great, one must be different and, probably, misjudged:  "To be great is to be misunderstood," Emerson writes. 

In order to understand truth, one must be an individual, not a conforming member of society.  For, the experience of truth is a divine one; it is one in which the individual stands alone, above time and space, and even above life and death. 


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