Emerson believes that when we are alone, we can be like the babies and the boys he just described and pay attention to our inner voices. Emerson states, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” When we get into society, however, society exerts its pressure on us, most specifically by asking us to be virtuous. Emerson compares society to a “joint-stock” company in which the price of investment is one’s manhood or independence. That price is usually what society sees as virtue, and what society most recognizes as virtue is conformity. Self-reliance, however, is the opposite of conformity, and Emerson sees most of society’s virtues as mere custom and deference to respected people.
Emerson uses emotional appeals and an extended metaphor to support his argument for nonconformist morality. The sympathetic tone he takes underscores his admission that nonconformity is hard, while the comparison to the “joint-stock” company taps into trends in nineteenth-century American society that rejected sources of conventional morality like the church. This analysis of the conflict between society’s demands and the individual marks a general theme of Emersonian thought—which influenced Nietzsche, who then influenced Freud, as a similar analysis is evidenced in in Freud’s work Civilization and Its Discontents.
According to Emerson, “Whoso would be a man must be a conformist.” Any individual who wants to be truly themselves must therefore be a nonconformist and question for themselves whether what society calls goodness is good after all. The only thing that is truly good is the “integrity of your own mind,” says Emerson, and the sooner a person realizes that, the sooner they will be free.
Emerson’s unconventional morality focuses on what the individual is able to uncover by contemplation of the self, one of the major pathways to the truth that was celebrated by transcendentalists.
Emerson expresses disappointment that the individual conforms to conventional morality even when it contradicts what the individual intuitively knows to be the most moral course of action. Because of this tendency, people whose behavior should be questioned are not, as long as they espouse conventional morality. It would be better, Emerson believes, for people to take care of those for whom they genuinely care than to engage in charity because that is what conventional morality says we must do. Sometimes he himself conforms to societal expectations of goodness, he admits, but he knows that such conformity is evil because it does not arise from his own sense of right and wrong.
The tone in this passage is both sympathetic and provocative. By representing himself as a person who sometimes bows to societal pressure to be conventionally moral, Emerson appeals to ordinary people who may be fearful of the uncompromising attitude espoused by Emerson through most of the essay. The provocation in this section is in Emerson’s attacks on beliefs—abolition and the need for charity—that would have been held as almost unassailable in his social circle. The point of his unusual perspective on what is moral is to force the reader to step back and think more carefully about institutions and society as sources of morality.
Emerson observes that conventional morality is effectively a toll that an individual pays to belong to society. For his part, Emerson would much rather do right by his own conscience, even if doing so means he incurs the disapproval of society. Ultimately, he tries to live for what his mind tells him is right, not what looks pleasing to society at large.
Emerson’s use of “I” here and his example of his own behavior again shows his sympathetic, personal approach to the reader, while also highlighting his belief in the individual, as opposed to society, as the source of morality.