What does Emerson mean by "Whoso would be a man must be a noncomformist" in "Self-Reliance"?

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By saying that "whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist," Emerson means that to reach their highest potential, individuals must follow their souls, not conform to tradition or someone else's preset, conventional plan for their lives.

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In "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson follows his statement that "whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist" with an illustrative anecdote which tends to shock religious readers. When he was young, he had a friend who sought to instruct him in "dear old doctrines of the church," but Emerson was uninterested in doctrine and said that he sought to "live wholly from within." When his friend suggested that what he regarded as the promptings of his own nature might be thoughts that came from the devil, the young Emerson replied,

They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.

This shows how far Emerson carries the principles of self-reliance, individualism, and nonconformity. For him, as for Nietzsche after him, such authenticity is "beyond good and evil." A man must be a nonconformist, and aim at individuality and fulfillment of his own essential nature rather than at "goodness," because if he chooses goodness based on values that are not his own, then he is merely the follower of other men.

Emerson's precept here is closely connected with his observation that "envy is ignorance." A man should not concern himself with the fact that there may be better men in the world. He must concentrate entirely on being himself and following only his own instincts and ideals. The worst genuinely original personality, in Emerson's view, is more of a man than the best disciple.

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In Emerson's thought, to become a "man" means to reach one's true or highest potential. Emerson, who is addressing young men just out of college, draws a distinction between merely entering adulthood and finding one's highest destiny.

The person who reaches his highest potential can only do so by not conforming to a preset plan for his life. It can be easy to step into the role, for example, of taking over the family farm or business or of following a family tradition of entering law school. A true man, however, does not simply unthinkingly follow someone else's plan. Instead, as the essay lays out in some detail, one must do the harder work of looking inward. What does your soul tell you it wants you to do? What makes the iron string of whoever you are "vibrate" with longing? This is the path to follow.

The divine force has a destiny for every person, and it is up to that individual to find it. Following this destiny is most often going to mean not conforming to what other people, family, or society thinks is the safe, secure, and acceptable path.

Emerson points to people such as Jesus, Buddha, and Galileo as individuals who did not conform. By following their inner destinies, they changed society in profound ways. Emerson urges his audience to take the harder path, just as they did, as this will lead to the greater good.

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Emerson helps to explain this quotation in the sentences which follow it.  He says, "He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness."  In other words, it is inappropriate for a person who wants to consider themselves individualistic (for him, what it means to be "a man") to simply follow the crowd because it is the good thing to do.  We cannot assume that what others in society want is actually what is best; what seems good because it is the common choice may not actually be good.  If we are too busy following to really consider whether or not the choice we make is good, we learn nothing of value.  We should not conform at all—even if we choose to do what everyone else is doing each of us must do it because we choose it and not because it is what everyone else does.  

Moreover, Emerson writes, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind."  In order to maintain this integrity, then, each of us must refuse to conform.  Conforming would destroy this sacred integrity because we would stop questioning whether our actions were truly for the best.  Only when we question, only when we choose to follow our own minds, can we retain the sanctity of our minds.

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Emerson declares that if anyone wishes to truly be an individual with integrity, he (she) must be a nonconformist because only a nonconformist thinks and acts for himself (herself); only a nonconformist is able to be independent and truly happy and satisfied in life.

In his essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson insists that only as individuals do people live an meaningful existence because imitation of others is "suicide." For, each person has individual assets and a unique role to play in the world, and he (she) must not forfeit this role as a "guide, redeemer, or benefactor." Further, Emerson warns that society conspires against the individual because it is a "joint-stock company" that agrees upon behaviors and thinking for their combined benefit only. But, being an individual is all important because one's desires and needs may be different from what others decide. Emerson argues that babies are individuals, commanding four or five adults at a time to attend to them; children, too, command the attention of adults. He adds,

The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

Therefore, it is true to nature for a person to pursue individuality and avoid the constrictions that society tries to impose upon him (her). Emerson, as a Transcendentalist strongly felt that this trust in oneself and individuality are the only way to attain an "ideal spiritual state."

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