In this essay, Emerson makes a persuasive argument for nonconformity and self-sufficiency, finds sanctity in the individual mind, and calls upon us to express ourselves strongly rather than meekly. He insists that only as individuals do we know the best course of action and that imitation of others is ignorance.
He argues against "society," stating that it is only when we are apart from society that we can truly be ourselves and make the decisions that we need to make as individuals, away from the pressures that society creates. Note how Emerson describes society:
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Note how Emerson sets up society as being the antithesis of self-reliance. He argues that society is build around the "surrender" of the culture and liberty of its members, arguing that it inhibits free expression and creativity.