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Throughout literary history, Ralph Waldo Emerson has been considered one of the most influential writers of American Individualism. Emerson defines individualism as man’s ability to think for himself and to not rely on the past to direct his life. Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance”, is based on this idea of individualism. In this essay, he expresses his disdain for man’s dependence on traditional society. Throughout “Self-Reliance”, Emerson stresses the importance of nonconformity, freedom of thought, and individuality.
Emerson’s view of individuality begins with man thinking for himself and being his own person. He believes American society stresses conformity. Emerson believes one of the two major barriers to individuality is conformity. Emerson says, “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”(552). Society wants to control the individual and wants everyone to be alike. Society wants to impose rules, laws, and government on its people so they can be puppet like. Emerson says that man must overcome this desire to conform, be his own person, and rely on his own internal instincts. Emerson goes on to say that what society is really after is conformity.
He says, “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion”(552). Society wants everyone to conform to the way it wants it to be, whereas self-reliance wants man to be a unique individual and express his own thoughts with confidence. Emerson says, “It is easy in the world, to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude”(554). He is saying it is easy to follow the world’s opinion and be a conformist. It is also easy to think your own thoughts and not express them for fear of rejection. However, it is not easy to keep your life in line with your beliefs or to express your beliefs to society. The man that can do this is a great man.
Emerson says, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist”(552). Anyone that conforms to society no longer has an identity. Emerson says that, “…imitation is suicide…(551). One’s identity is lost in conformity because everyone is the same. He says, “If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible society…I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are…But do your thing and I shall know you”(554). When man is his own person and is original, he distinguishes himself from the rest of society. Being an individual sets you apart from the common man, who is like everyone else in society.
Emerson believes that if modern American society continues to be a society of conformists, then the idea of freedom of thought will be lost. Many people today find freedom of thought offensive. Emerson says this freedom of thought should be encouraged in order to preserve the value and meaning of our own ideas. He says we should ascribe to be more like “…Moses, Plato, and Milton…[who] set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men wrote but what they thought”(550). Society should not trust solely what others have thought and made known, but what each individual himself believes.
American society continues to place emphasis on trusting in others. Emerson says this leads to a loss in trust of ourselves. Man will continue to doubt himself and suppress his own thoughts if he does not strive to express his thoughts. After all, it is man’s own individuality and opinions that are important, not the opinions of the conformist. Emerson expresses this when he says, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think”(553).
In an ever-changing society, Emerson believes it is especially important to assert oneself as an individual. If society continues to modernize and the people of the society remain the same, conforming people, then nothing will ever change. Emerson says it takes people who are willing to stand up for what they believe and people who can think for themselves to create a society that can move into the future.
Emerson, in effect, said to the world that individualism was the virtue that made all Americans’ achievements possible. The people who stand out and voice their ideas are the people who will help society advance. Emerson says, “The persons who make up a nation today, next year die, and their experience with them”(566). This is why it is so important to assert oneself as an individual and express one’s thoughts to society so that the ideas will not die with the person and never be known.
Emerson’s views of individualism still impact society today. In today’s society, it is encouraged to think for oneself. Freedom of expression is a popular tool of Americans. While Americans do reference the past and what other scholars have expressed, they do not rely on it. Americans use other people’s research and knowledge as a tool to enhance society. American society also encourages nonconformity and different opinions to be expressed. Americans value the diversification of its people. Emerson has played a huge part in influencing American society through his views on individuality and self-reliance.