What are some similarities in Thoreau's and Socrates's philosophy in terms of non conformity?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One immediate similarity between both thinkers in their embrace of non- conformity is that both were seen as fundamentally different than the rest of society.  To a great extent, both were non- conformist in their own right, with neither embracing the reality that so many others around them so easily embraced.   Some of the most basic similarities between Thoreau and Socrates in terms of non- conformity is that both of them located the subjectivity as one of the critical aspects of human consciousness.  The subjective pursuit of truth and understanding in accordance to the forms was not one that Socrates saw as perfect for everyone.  In Socrates's own mind, there were only a handful of individuals who had the capacity to appreciate the universality and perfectibility of the forms.  These individuals, what he termed as the philosopher- king, stood distant and apart from the mass of society.  In this light, the most precious tenet of Socratic philosophy embraces the non- conformist.  The philosopher- king could not afford to be a conformist individual.  It is for this reason that Socrates's beliefs were in praise of the non- conformist.  When he says that "The unexamined life is not worth living," it is said with a direct sense of praise towards the individual who defines themselves as fundamentally different than those around them, a collective entity who live lives that are unexamined in their own right.  Socrates validates this with his idea that "to find yourself, think for yourself."  In Socrates's construction of human consciousness, the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful is one that validates the non- conformist approach to being in the world.

Thoreau's embrace of non- conformity is similar to Socrates's in that he validates the role of the subjective in defining oneself apart from the collective notion of the good.  When Thoreau says that he "wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life," it is a reflection of how the non- conformist approach to consciousness is able to merit the greatest award.  Thoreau believes that the pursuit of that which makes life meaningful cannot be reconciled with the vision of individuals who, in their conformity, live lives of "quiet desperation."  It is for this that Thoreau suggests that it is essential to “be yourself- not your idea of what you think somebody else's idea of yourself should be."  In both thinkers, there is a clear approach in the idea that human truth can only be ascertained if individuals are able to break free from the conformist notion of the good that regulates thought and limits potential to wonder and examine that which is unexamined.  It is in this regard where both thinkers feature a distinct pattern that embraces non- conformity.

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