What is society's main purpose according to Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Self-Reliance"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Emerson contends that society is "a joint-stock company" that is in conspiracy against the individual.

According to Emerson, society's main purpose is to suppress individuality:

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

Emerson, who rails against conformity in his essay, states that the "joint-stock company" of society has members who agree to relinquish their individualism for the safety of conformity. They, then, share the same opinions, the same thoughts, and they want others to accept these opinions and thoughts.

In his essay, Emerson makes a persuasive argument for non-conformity and self-sufficiency. Finding sanctity in the individual mind, he calls upon those in his audience to express themselves strongly. Further, he insists that imitation of others is ignorance, and in the individual's mind there is sanctity. For, Emerson contends, the divine presence is at work in those who would be individuals. After all, he concludes, only by being non-conformists can people be fully human.

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.

Finally, Emerson concludes by stating that acting in accordance with true feeling will effect a sound, worthy life. And, he states, it matters not that a person be misunderstood because many great people such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, and Galileo were misunderstood. After all, "[T]o be great is to be misunderstood...."

 

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As was mentioned in the previous post, society's main purpose is to suppress individuality, force people to conform to the status quo, and encourage citizens to behavior consistently. Emerson likens society to being a "joint-stock company" that wishes to make individuals surrender their liberty and culture. Emerson expresses his disapproval regarding the way in which society chastises and persecutes those who act independently. Any independent individual who challenges social norms is viewed as malevolent and treated like a pariah. Society places restrictions on individuality and discourages people from seeking their true purpose in life. Emerson also likens society to a wave and writes,

"The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation today, next year die, and their experience with them" (20).

Emerson encourages individuals to reject society's standards and traditions. He urges us to trust ourselves and not conform to society's views of how people should behave and think. Individuality and authenticity should be praised and valued while conformity and consistency should be rejected.

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Self-Reliance

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