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Emerson's stance on consistency, conformity, and nonconformity in "Self-Reliance"

Summary:

In "Self-Reliance," Emerson argues against consistency and conformity, advocating instead for nonconformity. He believes that individuals should trust their own instincts and ideas, even if they contradict societal norms or previous beliefs. Emerson emphasizes that true self-reliance involves embracing one's unique thoughts and being unafraid to change one's mind, as consistency can hinder personal growth and self-discovery.

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What is Emerson's view on foolish consistency in "Self-Reliance"?

Emerson notes that

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

A hobgoblin is a mischievous supernatural creature found in various folklore traditions. In using the simile of consistency as a hobgoblin, Emerson is therefore suggesting that consistency is troublesome. Fittingly, a hobgoblin's small size echoes the idea of a "little" mind. Indeed, someone who is foolishly consistent does not think big. The word "hobgoblin" also evokes the association of being hobbled, or having one's feet tied together so as to walk with great difficulty. This association is apt, because Emerson's point is that a foolish consistency holds one back.

Emerson never distinguishes between foolish consistency and wise consistency, but his point is that people should not be hampered by the need to be consistent. Instead, he says, individuals should act upon what is most true and valid today. They should be true to themselves in the moment. If their ideas change the next day, they should be true to those new ideas.

Emerson says that a "great soul" is not concerned with consistency. Emerson then points to people such as Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Pythagoras, Galileo, and Newton, all of whom were misunderstood in their time, and says that it does not matter that they were not understood, for they were great minds who were true to themselves and willing to change their ideas when necessary.

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What was Emerson's view on consistency and conformity in Self-Reliance?

Emerson believed that individuals should think for themselves, not simply conform to popular ideas because they are the most popular and not simply stick with one opinion so as to avoid appearing inconsistent (and, therefore, flaky or indecisive) to others.

Essentially, the most important thing to Emerson was that the individual uses only his or her conscience and intuition as the yardstick of their behavior and disregard whatever anyone else—including the whole of society—says is right or wrong, good or bad. If an individual's conscience happens to dictate that they behave in a manner that is similar to others, then they ought to do so precisely because their conscience dictates that they do and not because it is what other people are doing.

In short, he says, "Trust thyself." We must trust our own critical faculties and not anyone else. Conformity and consistency are negatives when a person conforms or remains consistent against the dictates of their own conscience; instead, "He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness." A person who truly wants to live life cannot accept what society says is good and must, rather, investigate and determine for him or herself whether that thing or idea or person is good. If the individual's opinion happens to be the same as the whole of society's, then this is not conformity but coincidence.

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What was Emerson's view on consistency and conformity in Self-Reliance?

While the title of Emerson's famous essay "Self-Reliance" might lead one to believe that his purpose was to encourage people to be self-supporting, rather than relying on charity or a handout, his intent was different. He was encouraging young men to follow the dictates of their conscience, of the voice of God speaking within their souls. He was encouraging them to be nonconformists in accepting whatever God-given task they had been assigned, even if it flew in the face of convention. "Imitation is suicide," he wrote. He also declared, "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string."

His friend, Henry David Thoreau, exemplified this sort of non-conformity. Thoreau wanted to "front life" and to really live fully before he died. He therefore followed an unconventional path, existing for a time as simply as he could in a small cabin, writing about his experiences there.

Emerson felt that society as a whole, not just the individual, benefitted if each person followed the dictates of his own soul. Becoming a lawyer, for instance, just because it was safe and acceptable, dragged down not only the person doing it, but  the entire society by depriving it of richer benefits. Emerson wanted people to become completely alive to their deepest selves, believing this would make the world a more vibrant place.

Emerson also believed that people should have the courage to change their minds. There is no shame in this, he said. He wrote, instead, that

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. 

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What was Emerson's view on consistency and conformity in Self-Reliance?

Ralph Waldo Emerson was vehemently opposed to consistency and conformity. In his famous essay, "Self-Reliance," Emerson writes that in order to be a man, one must be a nonconformist. He states that self-reliance is considered conformity's aversion and encourages the reader to form their own opinions instead of conforming to the status quo. Emerson valued originality, authenticity, and independent thought. He wrote that conformity scatters one's force and blurs the impression of one's character. Emerson believed that a person should look within themselves for direction and inspiration as opposed to imitating others and conforming to society.

In regards to consistency, Emerson believed that individuals should act upon whatever their conscience dictates at any particular time. He felt that as long as an individual's tendencies were natural and honest, their actions would be genuine. Emerson wrote,

"The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them" (6).

He comments that individuals should not worry about contradicting themselves and being viewed as hypocrites for their new thoughts. Emerson encourages us to accept our new ideas and embrace our inconsistent nature. Emerson refers to consistency as a "hobgoblin of little minds" and believes that our overall inconsistencies are actually symmetrical when viewed from a different perspective. He writes,

"The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency" (7).

Emerson encourages individuals to focus on the present and reject the idea of maintaining a consistent nature. 

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What was Emerson's view on consistency and conformity in Self-Reliance?

The answer to this question can be easily seen in two very famous quotes.

When it comes to conformity, Emerson says "whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist."  When it comes to consistency, he says "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

What Emerson is saying in both these quotes is that people must follow the dictates of their own consciences.  In the first, he is saying that they must not conform to what other people believe is right.

In the second, he is also saying that they should not bow to peer pressure.  The idea in this second quote is that people should not feel like they have to be consistent just because others will make fun of them if they are not consistent.  Instead, Emerson says you have to say what you believe today even if it is the opposite of what you said yesterday.

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Do you agree that Emerson advocates for nonconformity in "Self-Reliance"?

Emerson is not trying to advise everybody to be a nonconformist. He is addressing his remarks to intelligent individuals who are capable of understanding him. No doubt a lot of these individuals are already out of step with society already and feel guilty about it. A good example of a nonconformist in modern literature is Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye. He can't help being a nonconformist, but he has misgivings about being the way he is. The masses of men and women will always be conformists. In fact, if everybody was a nonconformist, wouldn't that be a kind of conformity? Some nonconformists only seem like exhibitionists (or screwballs). They wear Mohawk haircuts, ragged denims, pierce their ears and lips with metal implants, and collect ugly tattoos. It's like they are almost in uniform. But they are all being conformists in rebellion. 

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Do you agree that Emerson advocates for nonconformity in "Self-Reliance"?

The principle idea of Emerson's essay, I think, is not one of non-conformity, per se, but of self-belief.

If we are to discover the truth about ourselves, discover any truly original ideas, or approach intellectual life with courage, we have to be willing to follow our inner genius. To subordinate our internal voice by offering primacy to perceived pre-existing opinions and ideas, we will not have a chance to find truth.  

There is talk of non-conformity in the essay, certainly, but I read these exhortations as just another way to encourage individuals to think freely and for themselves, not necessarily as a call to rebellion, intellectual or otherwise. 

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Do you agree that Emerson advocates for nonconformity in "Self-Reliance"?

Many people would do well to read Emerson and Thoreau nowadays. For, instead of being non-conformists, they have become sheep whose baaa's are echoes of platitudes that they have heard.  Indeed, their words and thoughts have become, as Oscar Wilde stated, "quotations of others."  Emerson certainly did not advocate anarchy and disobedience of whatever was right. "The integrity of one's mind" is absolutely the underlying theme of his statement.

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Do you agree that Emerson advocates for nonconformity in "Self-Reliance"?

I think this is a complicated issue.  I always try to relate Emerson's Self-Reliance to another famous quote of his in Nature: "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the Universe" (Nature, 1836).  I don't think that Emerson was interested in our being bizzare or odd; rather, he was encouraging us to enjoy an original (non-conforming) relation to the universe.  When he argues against conformity, I think he is arguing against all the forces that drag us away from this original relation.  The "foolish consistency" he speaks of is foolish repetition of past behaviors.  The line that precedes the one I quoted earlier sets the stage:  "The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes."  Whenever we do not confront God "face to face," then we are conforming.

If that is the case, how could we not be non-conformists?

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Do you agree that Emerson advocates for nonconformity in "Self-Reliance"?

Emerson states that "whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist". In his essay on "Self Reliance", he declares that the only sacred, trustable being is yourself; to live by your conscience and instincts, even if it goes against everything you said before.  He feels so strongly about it that he asserts "imitation is suicide", meaning if you imitate others, you are killing your own individuality.

I agree on a certain level.  Emerson takes it to the extreme.  He feels that institutions such as religion or society are completely useless in dictating behavior, that we should only "trust thyself".  I do feel that there is too much conformity in this world, and their fear of the regard of others is stronger than their own love of themselves.  People are told how to behave, think, feel and act through peers, the media, and other standards.  So there is a certain amount of negative conformity, of mindless shaping of oneself to fit in. If more people were happy with who they were, regardless of external factors, they wouldn't feel that urge to conform.  However, there are some standards-laws, morals-that I feel are there for the common good of mankind, and if we were to reject them out of hand simply because following them is "conforming" then it could lead to chaos.  So, yes, don't conform your personality, self-esteem, and individual regard to other people, but maintain civility and decency in society and morals.

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Do you agree that Emerson advocates for nonconformity in "Self-Reliance"?

Emerson's idea that "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist" is a nice Romantic idea but if everyone refused to conform to all social norms, civilization would be in chaos. Certainly people want to be able to think freely. But in a human society, there is also a need for a certain amount of conformity .Emerson writes, "What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think." However, we all know that for a society to exist, we all must think of the consequences of our actions upon others. This can be seen in the novel "Lord of the Flies" when Jack decides to begin disobeying the agreed upon rules of the boys small island society. One infraction led to another and eventually endangered all of the boys. Emerson also writes that we can ignore consistency. He writes, " A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." However, people who voted for Barack Obama for president expect him to be consistent and make good on the promises he has made. I think we all know that, given the present economic conditions, some of his priorities will change. But if he changes the political philosophy on which he was elected, he probably will not be president four years from now. We expect our leaders to be consistent. If not,the lack of trust the can develop can be deadly.

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