Self-Reliance Questions and Answers
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-Reliance book cover
Start Your Free Trial

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

Expert Answers info

Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseTeacher (K-12)

calendarEducator since 2016

write7,211 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Arts

Emerson helps to explain this quotation in the sentences which follow it.  He says, "He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness."  In other words, it is inappropriate for a person who wants to consider themselves individualistic (for him, what it means to be "a man") to simply follow the crowd because it is the good thing to do.  We cannot assume that what others in society want is actually what is best; what seems good because it is the common choice may not actually be good.  If we are too busy following to really consider whether or not the choice we make is good, we learn nothing of value.  We should not conform at all—even if we choose to do what everyone else is doing each of us must do it because we choose it and not because it is what everyone else does.  

Moreover, Emerson writes, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind."  In order to maintain this integrity, then, each of us must refuse to conform.  Conforming would destroy this sacred integrity because we would stop questioning whether our actions were truly for the best.  Only when we question, only when we choose to follow our own minds, can we retain the sanctity of our minds.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2006

write16,150 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

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."

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial