What does Ralph Waldo Emerson mean by "Whoso would be a man must be a noncomformist"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Emerson declares that if anyone wishes to truly be an individual with integrity, he (she) must be a nonconformist because only a nonconformist thinks and acts for himself (herself); only a nonconformist is able to be independent and truly happy and satisfied in life.

In his essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson insists that only as individuals do people live an meaningful existence because imitation of others is "suicide." For, each person has individual assets and a unique role to play in the world, and he (she) must not forfeit this role as a "guide, redeemer, or benefactor." Further, Emerson warns that society conspires against the individual because it is a "joint-stock company" that agrees upon behaviors and thinking for their combined benefit only. But, being an individual is all important because one's desires and needs may be different from what others decide. Emerson argues that babies are individuals, commanding four or five adults at a time to attend to them; children, too, command the attention of adults. He adds,

The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

Therefore, it is true to nature for a person to pursue individuality and avoid the constrictions that society tries to impose upon him (her). Emerson, as a Transcendentalist strongly felt that this trust in oneself and individuality are the only way to attain an "ideal spiritual state."

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