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Ralph Waldo Emerson and Non-Conformity

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Ralph Waldo Emerson and Non-Conformity

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  • December 2012
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In his essay Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson argues for, among other things, a kind of nonconformity in thought and action. This nonconformity is a recurring thought throughout his essay, as he comes back to this point repeatedly. Certainly, there are benefits that come from nonconformity, and these would be the strengths of such a position. On the other hand, there are also weaknesses in the concept itself, as well as in some of Emerson's presentation of these thoughts. That Emerson is preaching nonconformity in this essay becomes clear very quickly. In his opening paragraph, he begins laying the foundation for this concept by saying, "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,--that is genius." Here, he is encouraging the reader to adopt an attitude that is dependent upon the individual's own thoughts and independent from conventional or societal thought. He goes on to say, "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide." Wanting what others have or following what other think is clearly condemned by Emerson, but more than that, he expects each person to come to that conclusion on his own. Of course, Emerson spells out this concept of nonconformity in no uncertain terms when he says, "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist."

One of the great strengths of nonconformity is that it opens the door to new thoughts and new ideas. When people leave the accepted standards and begin pushing the envelope, they expand the realm of human knowledge and understanding. Emerson says, "... the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought." Later, he goes on to discuss those who spoke their thoughts in hard words, saying, "Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo,...