The short answer to this question is a resounding "yes." To Emerson, the individual (mind, body, and spirit) absolutely trumps society. In fact, Emerson spends most of his time in "Self-Reliance " being disgusted by society. The quotation above is paramount, but there is a line left out of...
The short answer to this question is a resounding "yes." To Emerson, the individual (mind, body, and spirit) absolutely trumps society. In fact, Emerson spends most of his time in "Self-Reliance" being disgusted by society. The quotation above is paramount, but there is a line left out of it from the beginning that, in this eNotes Educator's opinion, is key:
These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.
What "voices," you ask? The voices of individuality. These are what we here in solitude. Enter the world, and the voices blend in with the crowd. Immediately after saying this, the quotation in the above answer appears. Emerson considers society to be "in conspiracy" against that individuality. To show us how this work, Emerson makes an analogy to a company with "joint-stock." Better to eat than to secure "liberty." Further, customs and names are its friends, not creators and realities.
Emerson grows from being disgusted at society to actually being ashamed of society:
I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.
Note the importance to a society (and, further, to a large corporation) of a "badge" or a "name." An individual seeking to blend in is praised for both. Why? Because he or she then ceases to be an individual.
Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. ... All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.
Here we find that society as "a wave" can never end with the improvement of the individual. Any individual who desires to improve society forfeits his or her individuality. The analogy here, of course, is that of society being compared to a wave. The water molecules in the wave (the individuals) never move. They simple stay where they are in an endless circle (if you remember the description of a wave in elementary school science). It is only an illusion that the wave is moving the water forward.
In conclusion, I find it ironic that it is always considered very "American" to be an individual and, yet, we are still all part of American "society." How wonderful that we have eloquent writers such as Emerson to remind us about individuality and truth.