What is Emerson Saying about isolation? "Isolation must precede true society""Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While most early thinkers felt that the group held a priority over the individual with the need for the dissenters to accept society's greater wisdom, such Transcendentalists as Thoreau and Emerson held another position.  Their position was in the value and greater worth of the individual.  Emerson wrote:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.

Thus, valuing the development of the individual, Emerson suggested that "Isolation must precede true society."  That is, "we must go alone."  As Thoreau went into the woods deliberately to learn what it had to teach, so, too, does Emerson in his Self-Reliance recommend that the individual develop spiritual intuition afforded by nature and solitude in it.  The creator is not the conformist, but the man who can think things through himself.  To Emerson, individualism is the greatest virtue of man. For Emerson, a greater self-reliance--a new respect for the "divinity of man"--must effect a revolution of sorts against the "hobgoblins" of conformity.


pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In my opinion, Emerson is saying that isolation will lead you to understand yourself better.  Once you have understood yourself, then you may actually go out and deal with other people in a more authentic way -- that is what "true society" is.

In this passage, Emerson is talking about how people try to look to other people in order to find out who they, themselves, are.  This is why he says that people go out to try to borrow a cup of water from someone else's urn rather than looking to the "internal ocean."  What Emerson is saying is that you should look first to that internal ocean.  You have to tryly understand who you are without having all the "noise" from other people.  You can't truly be yourself if you let all that stuff from the outside influence who you are.

So what he is saying in this line is that isolation teaches us about who we really are.  Once we know who we really are, we can go and join society because we will be secure in who we are and will not be overly influenced by others.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The previous thoughts are extremely strong.  I am reminded of the statement, "Know Thyself," in this context.  Transcendentalist thinkers believed that individuals are doing their own subjective voices a disservice when they progress into society without understanding their own identity, and rather seeking to mold it in conformity with others'.  These thinkers saw this as a constant practice in the social orders of the time and also understood it as a reality that needed to be avoided.  For the Transcendentalists who wanted to laud the personal experience and subjective voice above all others and inject this authentic expression into as many realms and voices as possible, isolation was seen as a needed step to protect the individual from the conformist, and in their minds, corruptive aspect of the social order.

lit24 | Student

This statement of Ralph Waldo Emerson occurs in his thought provoking essay"Self Reliance." Emerson a staunch romantic individualist remarks that Man has lost his uniqueness and individuality, and that his sensibilities and intellect have become dull and useless because he asserts that,

"But now we are a mob."

Emerson insists that every human being is unique and that he or she must not allow himself or herself to lose his or her individuality and uniqueness in the vast mass of humanity. It is then that he emphatically states,

We must go alone. Isolation must precede true society.

Emerson concludes that a healthy and vibrant society is one which is made up of individuals who are conscious of their uniqueness

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