Do you agree or disagree that Emerson believes it is vital for all people to be nonconformists?

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Emerson is not trying to advise everybody to be a nonconformist. He is addressing his remarks to intelligent individuals who are capable of understanding him. No doubt a lot of these individuals are already out of step with society already and feel guilty about it. A good example of a...

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Emerson is not trying to advise everybody to be a nonconformist. He is addressing his remarks to intelligent individuals who are capable of understanding him. No doubt a lot of these individuals are already out of step with society already and feel guilty about it. A good example of a nonconformist in modern literature is Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye. He can't help being a nonconformist, but he has misgivings about being the way he is. The masses of men and women will always be conformists. In fact, if everybody was a nonconformist, wouldn't that be a kind of conformity? Some nonconformists only seem like exhibitionists (or screwballs). They wear Mohawk haircuts, ragged denims, pierce their ears and lips with metal implants, and collect ugly tattoos. It's like they are almost in uniform. But they are all being conformists in rebellion. 

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The principle idea of Emerson's essay, I think, is not one of non-conformity, per se, but of self-belief.

If we are to discover the truth about ourselves, discover any truly original ideas, or approach intellectual life with courage, we have to be willing to follow our inner genius. To subordinate our internal voice by offering primacy to perceived pre-existing opinions and ideas, we will not have a chance to find truth.  

There is talk of non-conformity in the essay, certainly, but I read these exhortations as just another way to encourage individuals to think freely and for themselves, not necessarily as a call to rebellion, intellectual or otherwise. 

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Many people would do well to read Emerson and Thoreau nowadays. For, instead of being non-conformists, they have become sheep whose baaa's are echoes of platitudes that they have heard.  Indeed, their words and thoughts have become, as Oscar Wilde stated, "quotations of others."  Emerson certainly did not advocate anarchy and disobedience of whatever was right. "The integrity of one's mind" is absolutely the underlying theme of his statement.

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I think this is a complicated issue.  I always try to relate Emerson's Self-Reliance to another famous quote of his in Nature: "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the Universe" (Nature, 1836).  I don't think that Emerson was interested in our being bizzare or odd; rather, he was encouraging us to enjoy an original (non-conforming) relation to the universe.  When he argues against conformity, I think he is arguing against all the forces that drag us away from this original relation.  The "foolish consistency" he speaks of is foolish repetition of past behaviors.  The line that precedes the one I quoted earlier sets the stage:  "The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes."  Whenever we do not confront God "face to face," then we are conforming.

If that is the case, how could we not be non-conformists?

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Emerson states that "whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist". In his essay on "Self Reliance", he declares that the only sacred, trustable being is yourself; to live by your conscience and instincts, even if it goes against everything you said before.  He feels so strongly about it that he asserts "imitation is suicide", meaning if you imitate others, you are killing your own individuality.

I agree on a certain level.  Emerson takes it to the extreme.  He feels that institutions such as religion or society are completely useless in dictating behavior, that we should only "trust thyself".  I do feel that there is too much conformity in this world, and their fear of the regard of others is stronger than their own love of themselves.  People are told how to behave, think, feel and act through peers, the media, and other standards.  So there is a certain amount of negative conformity, of mindless shaping of oneself to fit in. If more people were happy with who they were, regardless of external factors, they wouldn't feel that urge to conform.  However, there are some standards-laws, morals-that I feel are there for the common good of mankind, and if we were to reject them out of hand simply because following them is "conforming" then it could lead to chaos.  So, yes, don't conform your personality, self-esteem, and individual regard to other people, but maintain civility and decency in society and morals.

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Emerson's idea that "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist" is a nice Romantic idea but if everyone refused to conform to all social norms, civilization would be in chaos. Certainly people want to be able to think freely. But in a human society, there is also a need for a certain amount of conformity .Emerson writes, "What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think." However, we all know that for a society to exist, we all must think of the consequences of our actions upon others. This can be seen in the novel "Lord of the Flies" when Jack decides to begin disobeying the agreed upon rules of the boys small island society. One infraction led to another and eventually endangered all of the boys. Emerson also writes that we can ignore consistency. He writes, " A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." However, people who voted for Barack Obama for president expect him to be consistent and make good on the promises he has made. I think we all know that, given the present economic conditions, some of his priorities will change. But if he changes the political philosophy on which he was elected, he probably will not be president four years from now. We expect our leaders to be consistent. If not,the lack of trust the can develop can be deadly.

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