In his essay, “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson focuses on the benefits of the individual that relies on him- or herself, rather than exclusively upon the opinions of others. Emerson regards modern, city-dwelling society as a culture of followers who seldom think for themselves. Instead, humanity today is easily convinced by the opinions of religious and political leaders.
The central message here is that this type of reliance on others rather than the self and one’s own judgment is fundamentally dangerous to the individual and ultimately to the whole of society as well. A lack of self-reliance means a lack of critical thinking. This means that, whoever has the strongest and most eloquently stated opinion, regardless of its content, is the most respected leader of the time.
Society, its development, and its very future then depend on these strongly stated opinions, regardless of their validity or lack thereof. This lack of critical thinking becomes evident in social ills such as prejudice, which is based on fear rather than knowledge.
Emerson’s message is that the individual should retrieve a sense of critical thinking. This would create better judgment and ultimately a healthier future for all human beings, rather than the few with opinions that are strongly stated, but not necessarily valid.
In this excellent essay, that does so much to express Emerson's transcendentalist ideas, Emerson makes an argument for nonconformity and self-sufficiency and calls upon individuals to express their true selves strongly rather than quietly and meekly. He argues that it is only when we are individuals that we know the best course of action for ourselves and that if all we do is imitate others, it is nothing more than ignorance.
One of the most powerful aspects of his argument, in my opinion, is the way that he presents society as being the ultimate evil of self-reliance and how it inhibits the freedom of finding your own path and self-expression. Consider the following quote:
These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. 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 the way that society and self-reliance are set against each other, and society is set to be constructed to promote conformity and to not promote creating or "realities." It is only by escaping the restrictions of society that we can truly find ourselves and become self-reliant.