Society Everywhere Is In Conspiracy Against The Manhood

Explain the quote, "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members."

Asked on by lizzy16

2 Answers

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Ralph Waldo Emerson was perhaps the foremost of the American Transcendentalists and it is the philosophy of the Transcendentalist movement that is reflected in the passage you quote.

To the Transcendentalists, "manhood" (in today's language, we should probably see "being fully human," perhaps) is evidenced by doing your own thing, following the dictates of your own conscience.

By contrast, Emerson argues, society conspires to rob us of our "manhood" by making us conformists.   In the very next paragraph after the one you quote, Emerson writes the famous line "whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist."  To him, society tries to prevent us from being "men" by forcing us to conform.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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For Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, individualism is paramount. Railing against imitation, Emerson encourages people to become self-reliant and listen to their inner thoughts. They must avoid "the opium of custom" and behave according to their own thoughts because "society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members." In other words, people must not be lulled into following customs and letting others think for them or make rules for them. Society, Emerson says, is a "joint-stock company" that agrees upon ideas for one goal. However, in so doing, individuals surrender their individual liberties. And, once these liberties are surrendered, it is very difficult to gain them again because people will still want to control someone over whom they have already control. And, for Emerson, the most important thing is the "integrity of one's mind." 

Always, then, an individual must be one's own person, thinking one's own thoughts and possessing one's own principles. Perhaps, one will be misunderstood, but men such as Luther, Copernicus, and Galileo have been misunderstood, as well, observes Emerson. For, "to be great is to be understood," Emerson adds.