Emerson states, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think,” meaning that he is not concerned with the appearance of goodness—he only cares about what he believes to be right. Living by such a rule is difficult, however, because there will always be someone who thinks it’s their job to tell you right from wrong. Emerson observes that living according to conventional morality is easy when you live in the world, and living according to your own sense of morality is easy when you live in solitude, but it takes an independent spirit for a person to live by his own conscience within society. The struggle to do so, he believes, is worth the effort.
Emerson demonstrates his pragmatism by admitting that nonconformity is hard because almost the whole of society is built around conformity and certain concessions from the individual. That admission and the praise he heaps on the individual who refuses to conform while living in society serve as encouragement to the reader contemplating such a difficult path.
Emerson’s primary objection to living one’s life on the basis of conventional morality is that it obscures who the individual really is as a person. Furthermore, a person who has embraced conventional morality is completely predictable and false to themselves in every way.
Emerson’s arguments in this section focus on the individual as the basis of morality, and the importance of living out one’s individuality authentically even in the face of societal pressure.
“For nonconformity, the world whips you with displeasure,” Emerson writes, and so it would be to the thinking person’s advantage to consider what expressions of disapproval really mean. It could mean nothing, after all, since conventional people’s displeasure changes like the wind. Displeasure from cultivated people is actually quite easy to deal with, because it is genteel but dealing with the displeasure of the “lowest” of people or the mob can be hard, because it is expressed loudly and ferociously.
While Emerson generally celebrates the common man and the individual in this essay, this passage makes clear his view that the individual in the aggregate—“the mob”—is not a force for good in American society. This passage also continues Emerson’s discussion of what makes nonconformist morality so difficult.