Emerson: to Be or Not to Be – a Conformist Essay

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members…. The virtue most requested is conformity…. Who so would be a man must be a nonconformist” [70-75]. Ralph Waldo Emerson- a renowned philosopher, poet, lecturer and philanthropist, questions the concept of conformity. As one of the greatest revolutionary individualist in American literature – he expresses fervently that society is ultimately in opposition to the individual (actually, it’s a conspiracy against man) and self-reliance is its aversion. Can Emerson be correct?

The Emersonian idea of conformity is zealous in morality; however, conformity is quintessential in order for an individual to coincide with society. “Self-Reliance”, one of the legendary essays produced by Emerson, argues that conformity robs us of our most authentic and creative selves. It demonstrates how important it is to be an individual in a conformed world. Emerson believes that men fail to prosper because they allow society to think for them by setting standards and creating social norms. Emerson equates freedom with the expression of personal conviction, which is unrestrained by regulations or rules.

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He states that his own perception of something is just as important as the air he breathes. This idea suggests that man was born to make his own decision, have his own thoughts and be independent from everybody else. Emerson vividly illustrates this through his rant: Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.

There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousand fold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold (101-110). Emerson is condemning communitarian societal standards. He refuses to support morality by merely donating to charities.

He strongly feels that it is society’s plan to rob individuals. Emerson also theorizes that men’s good deeds are done as an apology or extenuation for living in the world where man’s virtues are penances. Furthermore, he explains why he does not believe in “foolish philanthropy” in this statement: “I do not wish to expiate, but to live; [For] my life is for itself and not for a spectacle”(115-116). Emerson declares, in order to be part of something – society, man has to lose his identity because man is dependent on others. This is evident in religion.

It is very simple for a person to walk into a church, recite prayers and listen to the sermons with a fulfilled need of being integrative – offering a sense of belonging to the church and/or religion. As a preacher, Emerson did what his message of “conformity” is going against. Emerson was a Unitarian minister for almost three years. He conformed to religious beliefs and principles and lived his life accordingly. He preached to masses of people about God and how to live their lives’ according to His laws. As a minister, Emerson delegated his foundation of beliefs onto a group of people. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men (4)” – Emerson took his belief and deemed it was correct for all men. On the contrary, Emerson argues that people need to stop foolishly following everyone else, and become self-reliant – “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” (182-183). He claims people who cannot think logically and rationally follow the rules delegated by these “little statesmen, philosophers and preachers (church officials).

Evidently, this is hypocrisy intertwined in theory; Emerson’s actions and ideas are not adding up. Clearly, this is a prime example that maybe conformity alone doesn’t obstruct individuality but yet, inconsistency restrains self independence and growth. Despite Emerson’s abdication of his title and rank as a minster; ministerial arrogance was still copious in his writing. Emerson asserts: “the inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.

We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions” (274-277). This reveals that wisdom springs from spontaneous intuition. Evidently, there is an omnipresence undertone in this passage. This is appealing to the “God is everywhere” notion. This concept of intuition is closely related to transcendentalism. Among the transcendentalists’ core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both man and nature. Transcendentalists believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual.

Indeed, the notion of self- reliance is without a doubt full of holes; which makes it inconsistent and unprincipled. Emerson fails to acknowledge that individuals are responsive to the world around us. He is ashamed to think how easily man capitulates to “badges and names, to large societies and to dead institutions” (87-88). He also criticizes man and society when he remarks: “Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each stockholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater” (71-73).

Emerson asks why “all men plume themselves on the improvement of society, but no man improves and society never advances; it recedes fast on one side as it gains on the other” (574-575). Evidently, we are influenced by civilization which is built by society. We need society to survive because we cannot live on nature alone. In fact, it is through the aid of other individuals directly or indirectly that Man survives at all. We feed on each others theories, thoughts, emotions, creed, religion, dogma and practices. If one person does it, the other makes it better – hence, the process of growth and stability in civilization.

Furthermore, the individual is molded by society. Conforming to ideas, practices, and beliefs is simply natural in the aspect of peaceful and successful living. Without conformation, a mere person would be left behind. To be “afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death and afraid of each other” (442) is antithetical to everything humans are. Emerson considers it repulsive and askew to conform to society, despite conforming himself. In essence, he played the direct adversary to his message of conformity. Inconsistency is often a distortion of perspective.

He claims: “ah, to be great is to be misunderstood” (189). However, is it great to be misunderstood? It is difficult to see Emerson’s perspective when his message does not correlate with his actions. Nevertheless, the ideology of self- reliance isn’t necessarily incorrect; considering the obvious fact that Emerson conformed to society himself. Apparently, there is a hypocritical line that is drawn in the lesson of “being self- reliant”. The idea of individualism in a conformed society can be a positive in a philosophical, behavioral and pragmatic.

An individual benefits from conformity for it allows growth in civilization. It protects us by creating limited amount of chaos through laws. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” (27) –therefore an individual must be able to be their own person because “imitation is suicide” (19). Truthfully, the concept of conforming is needed in order for society live peaceful. “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” (11).

The only answer is to cherish your own mind, your own voice and to make your own opinions. The Emersonian idea of conformity has merit in its uplifting message. Nonetheless, the idea of what the individual conforms to defines the person. This is the idealized individual, a master of self – reliance because the individual is applying their own standard in conjunction with the laws and standards that society has implemented to achieve their unique means of self-fulfillment.