Comparison of Conformism and Self-Reliance

The ideology of conformity has been a prominent theme in American culture throughout history. Through the natural development of society, we are taught to live under the norms that are created by those in power. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s argument within Self-Reliance, he claims that conformity is a parasite to society and that the only way growth can truly be accomplished is through self-actualization; pushing beyond the boundaries that society has placed around us, exploring the outskirts where individualism lives. Although Emerson’s argument has evolved alongside time, as he emphasized how detrimental the church’s influence is upon society and the concept of self-reliance, the central theme of nonconformity of those within a society remains very much relevant today, as seen in different aspects of our modern society.

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        Emerson believes that those within a society naturally adjust to the norms that those in power set in place for their distinct time period. Those norms help the powerful remain in power, hypnotizing the masses in order to control them, controlling prominent aspects of society’s life, such as morality, thoughts and actions. As Emerson argues, society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater, (lines 24-25) and as a result, self reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs. (lines 26-27) Precisely because of the system that the institutions that control society have set into place, individuals are taught that thinking differently than those around them and those major institutional powers is dangerous, abnormal even. For instance, before gay marriage was legalized, people viewed it as a violation of the norm,  and some still do. Two of the most powerful institutions that control our society such as religion and government stated that gay marriage was not allowed, making people conform to the view of a nuclear family, in which families and marriage was only created by a man and a woman. The prohibition against gay marriage made people restrain who they truly were, not being able to form a union with someone they really cared for.  This ideology penetrates conformism within a society, in which they cannot see beyond the box they have been placed in or beyond the norms that those in power have put in the box for them to wear, acting as a barrier between society and who they really are. Just like any other situation, the ban on gay marriage exalted inequality and discrimination within American society today and exemplifies how powerful institutions make people conform into boxes that may not imply for them, caging them from living in authenticity. This is why it is essential for those within society to not be hindered by the name of goodness, but explore if it be goodness, (line 29) exploring the legitimacy of those you are confiding in and not just believing in something because those around you said to do so.

        A constant theme Emerson tries to penetrate within Self Reliance is that self actualization can only be accomplished in the face of adversity and with deep thought, being willing to question everything. It is true that because of social normalities, we but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. (lines 8-9) It is a scary reality to acknowledge that we are all different, derivative of different experiences and each and every single one of us must stand in our own truth. As Emerson better puts it, it is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitudes 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. (lines 35-37) It is only through nonconformity that you can find yourself, be honest with yourself. Moreover, those with authority, want everyone to be the same, easier to control large groups of people if they all think similarly, but when people become idiomatic to their communities, it threatens the current system set into place. Like the domino effect, it only takes one person and their courage to wake up the rest and to start a movement, create change, which threatens their power. For example, Christine Blasey Ford stepped forward about how Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. With her courage, she was able to set back Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and inspire many other women to be fearless and tell their stories. Consequently, this was a big moment within the #metoo movement, feminist movement, and human rights campaign. Additionally, to truly grow as a person, you must be loyal to the values that are important to you, but to find those values, you must critically think. Do not be scared of backlash that society might give you, as whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. (line 28) In the end, trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. (line 14) All that will matter is that you lived in authenticy, unapologetically standing in the sun of your own truth.

        Change, as argued by Emerson, can only occur when a brave individual follows his heart and steps out of those boundaries, breaking barriers and walking past them, giving others an opportunity to follow them. Emerson explains how great men have followed their hearts and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their hearts, working through their hearts, predominating in all their being. (lines 16-18) Many people are scared of being who they truly are because many times, if you don’t fit within the box that has been presented to you, you are exiled and seen as an enigma; that is exactly why people try to fit in those boxes, conforming to who others want them to be, not living as who they truly are. People are afraid because that means they will not make connections with others, being misunderstood for being different. Despite this, to be great is to be misunderstood. (lines 53-54) As highlighted throughout history, all the names in our textbooks were misunderstood, different than any other, for Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. (lines 52-53) Evidently, all those who inspire us did not conform to the standards that others developed for them to follow, yet we seem to do the exact opposite of what they did. For example, people like Malala Yousafzai, who fought against Taliban rule for the right of education for women, persisting through conflict lead to real change for her people in Pakistan. She chose to nonconform and greatness arrived from her dedication. To be great is to be who you are destined to be and not let others tell you who you are.

        Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that conforming to the standards of others would make society a debacle. Through his argument in his piece Self-Reliance, he exemplifies that the only possible way that society could prosper is if everyone learned how to be their own individual instead of trusting the powerful in telling them what their every action and thought be. Although we live in a different, more modern society now, the theme of his piece is still prevalent in society today, as people still fall under the trap of the rich and powerful. People still must be unafraid to question those in authority, helping them find themselves. As Emerson said himself, to be great is to be misunderstood.

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Comparison Of Conformism And Self-Reliance. (2019, Nov 13). Retrieved May 17, 2022 , from

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