In keeping with his transcendentalist beliefs, Emerson was skeptical of forces that pushed the individual to conform to society. Emerson’s rejection of society (including any of its established institutions) as a source of truth and morality fit into a broader historical moment occurring in America at the time when Emerson was writing (in the 1830s and 1840s). The Second Great Awakening, a religious revival movement, rejected many of the faiths settlers had brought with them from Europe and instead focused on spirituality as an emotional experience found in personal communion with a higher power, what Emerson would have seen as the Oversoul. Other Americans embraced reform movements against slavery or utopian ideals that sought truth outside the regular confines of society, for example.
Those who rejected conventional morality were frequently met with harsh criticism by more conservative forces in society. In an America in which such criticism could make the difference between having a livelihood or not, and in which the local church was the central site for organizing society, nonconformity was a brave but hard choice. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is an exhortation to Americans to refuse to conform despite the cost and a guide for those who wonder what can take the place of traditional morality.
Emerson’s rejection of conformity stems from his idea that society is the source of immorality because it undercuts the independence of the individual. Society is characterized by “the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times” and it is the job of the individual to “hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works.” He argues that the greatest act of morality is therefore to be a nonconformist. While Emerson saw most of society as viewing morality in traditional, Christian terms that focus on acts of faith as expressions of goodness, he believes it is more moral to live by the light of one’s own conscience.
He even goes so far as to reject conventional charity that is motivated by conformity—that is, charity that is motivated by a desire to appear like a “good person” to the rest of society”—as being “a wicked Dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.” Emerson’s use of the word “manhood” to describe his refusal to be dominated by social convention is typical. Emerson often uses the nineteenth-century language of manliness to encourage his readers to reject the constraints of society. According to Emerson, a true, self-reliant man—one who is independent in his opinions—is the equal of any other person regardless of birth and is worthy of respect simply because of his character. This definition stands in contrast to the conventional ideal of the time of the “gentleman”—a man who was respected by society because of his social standing, his education, his good birth, his good reputation, and his ability to demonstrate conventional good manners. Emerson claims that “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” because merely conforming to societal dictates hampers the ability of a person to be independent. According to this logic, attempting to blend into society by honoring its constraints leads the individual away from the ability to listen to his own intuition, and thus “[s]ociety everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”
Emerson understands that this conspiracy makes the resolution to be a nonconformist difficult because of societal pressures. Nevertheless, he believes that to achieve true independence and greatness, the individual must learn not to fear the disapproval of society. Emerson admits that regardless of his actions, the individual will always be judged by society. However, he argues that fear of such judgement should not be taken into account since, as he puts it, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.... 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.” Furthermore, Emerson claims that trying to conform to societal expectations wastes one’s energy and genius because “it scatters your force.” He also argues that the individual must not be afraid even “when the ignorant and the poor are aroused, when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow.” Being willing to offend the sensibilities of the common person on the street is, in Emerson’s mind, the mark of greatness. Considering that the common man was seen as the hero of American culture at this point, Emerson’s call to ignore him is actually a call to go against the grain of much of American culture of the day.
Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness ThemeTracker
Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness Quotes in Self-Reliance
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.