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Themes of individualism in Ralph Waldo Emerson's, "Self-Reliance"

By 5656426 Sep 21, 2007 992 Words
In society today it is very hard to be ones own individual self. Peopled tend to see other people as either individualists or conformists. If a person doesn't fall in with the "in" crowd then you are considered to be "weird" or "un-cool". Ralph Waldo Emerson made this apparent in his essay "Self-Reliance." "Self-Reliance" also had several themes that focused on the topic of individualism. It also showed how he thought self-reliance would play out in personal conduct. Plus I know almost exactly what's it's like to be seen as peculiar and, or "un-cool" just because I wasn't part of the "in" crowd and tried to be like everyone else.

Emerson strongly believes that people look at others more than they look at themselves and what they have. He says, "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance." (Emerson 1005) This talks about what people have and how they feel about it. If people look at other's possessions and are jealous of them, then they're not looking at what they themselves have, and they think that others possessions are better than theirs. Therefore, these people are being ignorant of their own possessions. He further says that, "…imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion." (Emerson 1005) He explains that if people are not true in the sense of individualism, then those people are in effect "committing suicide." Society will look at these people, who try to imitate others, with a different perspective than other people; society always singles people out into a "crowd" due to this. Emerson then describes how people must take themselves for whom and what they are, and people should neither change nor imitate others. He says "We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents." (Emerson 1005) If people believe that they cannot be depended on, then they can't rely on others. People then become unconfident in what they do and therefore don't trust other people. This, in turn, affects everyone's morals and has a very negative effect on the human consciousness. In effect, people will try to keep a distance from these individuals because of their behavior that results from this.

Emerson then reinforces the concept of individualism and how people should accept what has happened to them. He says, "…we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny."(Emerson 1005) Emerson thinks that people must again take themselves for who and what they are; especially through the events people experienced in their past. These experiences make up who people are and people can't do anything to change what happened, but should accept things as they are. In not accepting their experiences, people are not moving along, and get lost in the past. Emerson then goes on to shed light on one of most important dreams people have. He says, "Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist." (Emerson 1006) He wants people to do what they believe, is right for them, not what society thinks is right. In other words people should choose their own destiny, not follow one that society picks out. Society dictates many of the personal choices people make, but these choices are suppose to be made by individuals as this has a direct effect on their self esteem. Those who don't do so are blinded as to what society has placed them in. People have some control, or at least enough to make a difference, towards their desired destinies. Emerson then says that, "To be great is to be misunderstood." (Emerson 1009) This, ties in with being a non-conformist like most of the greatest people, in the record part of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were all on a different level of thinking from the people of their time. Therefore, they were misunderstood at that particular time, and some were even condemned for their talent and thinking. Later in time, however, they were considered as symbols of innovation, theoretical thinking, and honored by society in today's world.

I agree mostly with Ralph Waldo Emerson in that I too think that everyone should be their own person. In some ways I think that the consistency of the conformists is based on the easy going and carefree way to go about life and this is why so many people fall into this category. Today some people may actually be suppressing some of their innovative thoughts and ideas just because they don't want to sound stupid in front of their friends or other people, but they wouldn't be stupid, they would just be doing something different from everyone else. I myself can relate to this because when I was a kid and going through the transition of elementary school to middle school, I kept to myself because I felt what I had to say wasn't important and I also didn't want to sound stupid. This led to me trying to change myself after every year of school and to try and be like everyone else. This, now that I look back on it and because of what Emerson says in "Self-Reliance," was a big mistake that I made in my life. But I look towards the future now and try not to get stuck in the past like Emerson suggests, so I think I'm my own person now and can still shape my destiny.

In conclusion, Emerson was a non-conformist who wrote about what he believed and he didn't care what anyone else thought about it. I also know exactly what Emerson is talking about because I did exactly what Emerson said people shouldn't do. I also think that everyone could learn something from Emerson, be a leader not a follower, or in other words go against the flow.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self-Reliance." Anthology of American Literature. George McMichael et al. Upper Saddle River: Person Education, Inc., 2007. 1004-1021

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