In his famous 1841 essay Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson argues that society is in conspiracy against our individuality. To really live good lives, we must have the courage to resist conformity and trust the ‘immense intelligence’ of our own intuition and gut instinct.
How can we best navigate existence? Should we go along with the conventions of society? Should we respect the prevailing traditions and opinions of the day? Or should we relentlessly carve our own paths through life?
Throughout his work, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) made his answers to such questions clear, spearheading the Transcendentalist movement of mid-19th century America.
One of the key hallmarks of the Transcendentalist movement, which notably included Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau (see our reading list of Thoreau’s best books here), is its celebration of the supremacy — even divinity — of nature.
Divinity is not locked in a distant heaven, say transcendentalists; it is accessible right here in the company of the natural world.
We are thus at our best not when we conform to voices outside ourselves, but when we follow the voice within — the glimmering insight, the “immense intelligence” of our natural intuition and instincts.
Society on this view is seen as a corrupting force — it takes us away from our natural wisdom.
Emerson offers the beginnings of a path for how we might resist the pressures of society in his famous 1841 essay, Self-Reliance (access the full text of Self-Reliance as a free PDF here), which features in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is a crucial contribution to Transcendentalist thought.
With eloquent, persuasive prose, Emerson fiercely defends the idea that the good life involves defying conformity, taking charge of our own existences, and living in accordance with the wisdom of the natural world.
Let’s take a look at Emerson’s essay in more detail, and see why his critique of conformity and celebration of individuality remains so acclaimed to this day.
Emerson begins Self-Reliance by discussing a funny thing he’s observed about great works of art. Namely: that they often reflect our own buried thoughts and feelings back to us. He writes:
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.
Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility [even] when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.
In other words, if we identify our own buried thoughts and concerns in works of genius — works we celebrate and implore others to read, watch, or listen to — then why, Emerson questions, do we often lack the conviction to express or act on such thoughts ourselves?
Perhaps, Emerson laments, we push down such thoughts because they go against convention in some way, or because we feel they might embarrass or expose us if spoken aloud.
In short: because we’re worried by the judgment of others…
Thus Emerson sets up his attack on convention and conformity, within which he thinks we all hide ourselves for fear of exposing our true natures.
With its silly status games and hierarchies, society saps our confidence and self-reliance, Emerson thinks: “It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”
As we move through life, we must navigate pre-existing power structures and conventions, and stagger through storms of opinion on what we think, say, and do.
Confident, persuasive voices will try to convince us that this is the way; while others will shame us for daring to act differently.
But against this noise we must try to preserve our individuality, Emerson implores:
You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. 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.
While outsourcing our opinions to the crowd may be tempting, and might feel like the safer option, in doing so we only falsify ourselves, Emerson warns:
Most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true.
Of course, society will punish us for trying to steer our own course. “For nonconformity”, Emerson observes, “the world whips you with its displeasure.”
We feel pressure to act according to the expectations of others, because “the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.”
But exchanging our true selves for the comfort of the crowd is a cost we should not be willing to bear, Emerson thinks:
Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.
After all, what but mediocrity awaits us in convention and consistency?
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.
Really living means growing and adapting, Emerson says — even if by growing and adapting we contradict our former selves, or people’s expectations of us:
Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? …Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think,” Emerson declares: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”
We might wonder why Emerson places so much stock on our ‘inner natures’ — what does he really mean by maintaining our individuality? How might we do so?
Well, Emerson thinks we are endowed with intuition from nature, an immense ‘gut’ intelligence that trumps the fleeting fashions of opinion in society.
“We lie in the lap of immense intelligence,” he writes,
which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or its absence is all we can affirm.
We cannot necessarily articulate it, but most of us will be familiar with having a ‘feeling in our gut’ or ‘call of conscience’. It is this kind of intuition that Emerson thinks we should trust much more than public opinion.
We are part of nature, yet the opinions of society corrupt us away from nature:
Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage… These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are… [but] man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future…
We will not be happy or strong until, like the examples in nature all around us, we live in the present without second-guessing ourselves, “above time”, self-reliant.
Emerson argues our best acts will never come through imitation, for we will never surpass those on whom we model ourselves.
It is only through really, truly, authentically being ourselves that we can live lives of which we can be proud — lives that take us beyond dreary mediocrity. Emerson writes:
Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.
For, indeed, he questions, “where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare?”
Every great person is unique, Emerson thinks. It is through embracing your uniqueness that you shall succeed:
Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.
But what of others? If living only according to our own intuition for how we should live, does Emerson’s philosophy mean selfishness?
No, Emerson says, it means authenticity: seeking to bloom into the best versions of ourselves — not what society claims is best for us; seeking to be human beings of value — not creatures of conformity.
“Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse,” Emerson writes. “Say to them,
O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law... I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife, — but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions…
We still strive to be the best we can be, and to respect and honor our loved ones, but through actions and behaviors that we command, not that are commanded for us.
Indeed, to be the best people we can be, we must no longer bury ourselves under layers of convention; it would be better for all of us if we could be sincere.
We might not all agree with one another, but we can respect each other’s right to disagree in the name of authenticity:
If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh today? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.
Perhaps such defiance may make us worry about upsetting our loved ones. “Yes,” Emerson concedes,
but I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility. Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they justify me, and do the same thing.
People may think that by rejecting convention we are defying all codes of conduct, but such people are misguided; we are now simply living in line with the immense intelligence of nature, not the fleeting opinions of society:
And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!
Though we may begin our lives living according to the conventions of the day or the expectations of others, there comes a time where the scales fall from our eyes and we must become ourselves. As Emerson puts it:
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself, for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
So, Emerson commands: do not outsource your share of life to the opinions of others, nor to fortune or luck. Take charge of your own existence, and live according to your own authority right now:
A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.
What do you make of Emerson’s analysis? Do you value self-reliance over conformity? Do you agree that our intuition is often wiser than public opinion? Or is there an extent to which the ‘call’ of conscience we hear internally is actually the voice of society inside us?
If you’d like to explore Emerson’s view further, you can read his Self-Reliance essay in full in this free PDF (if you have a spare 30-40 minutes, I highly recommend doing so — it’s a fantastic read. Emerson offers powerful critiques of different aspects of society — including the objects of education, travel, and the accumulation of wealth — and treats us to some beautiful natural imagery in his illustration of how we might live happier, more authentic lives.)
You might also be interested in these related reads which discuss the importance of self-reliance for living well:
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