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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Ralph Waldo Emerson on Individuality vs. Conformity
Socrates said, “Know thyself,” and no has taken that more to heart than one of America’s great revolutionary individualists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, an original liberal from Massachusetts, or the Sage of Concord as he was more commonly known in his day. He wasn’t the handsomest man alive… but his message made him more famous and more popular than any American Idol. He said things like:
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.”
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
Emerson, like no other, entreats us to trust ourselves, to become aware of ourselves—that is our innate capacity and power and we must use it (Rollo May makes a similar point in “On Becoming a Person”). We must pay attention to our inner voices, our inner lights, not ignore them, push them aside. “To envy others is ignorance” and “imitation is suicide,” Emerson declares. Such strong language to try to convince us how necessary it is to look within. Is he right? Are there consequences for not looking within, not listening to the quiet voice inside?
The voice outside, the blaring megaphone that is our pervasive mass media, is in opposition to the individual, drowning out that quiet lone voice. It’s constantly putting pressure on us to conform, to be like everyone else (in our “group”). Fit in. Be like us. Come in our house. There are a million keys for sale. Emerson:
“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members….The virtue most [requested] is conformity….Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”
The only answer is to cherish your own mind, your own voice:
“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
The way Emerson makes it sound, conformity is the enemy. Why does he consider it so nasty to conform? Doesn't conformity fulfill our need to belong? Don’t we all deep down want and need to belong to a group that’s bigger than ourselves? (Maya Angelou explores this in her poem, “Alone.”) Here we come to the interesting, very nuanced questions. Is any amount of conformity dangerous? If that were true, how could we have social structures? Look at Emerson’s pictures on these pages. You can probably point to some convincing evidence that he was okay about conformity in some matters; so, when does conformity become too much conformity? Why, despite the evidence that he himself has agreed to conform to certain obvious social conventions, does he make conformity out to be such a terrible thing?
It’s obvious that although he conformed to conventional social expectations in some ways, Emerson associated too much conformity—and that is an interesting question: how much is too much?—with a kind of "herd" mentality. The sheep are in this part of the meadow so I better go and stand there, too. The birds are flying this way; I better not get left behind. Uh-oh, the lemmings are jumping off the cliff, so I’d better jump, too. There’s something repugnantly mindless and undignified in behaving like a herd animal when human beings are capable of making individual choices. A human being ought to exercise his human faculties—intelligence, creativity, individuality. Conformity in all things, especially the things that matter most (what are the things that matter most to you?) would be a sign of lower intelligence.
If Emerson has a problem with conformity, perhaps it’s because he believed:
Because it’s likely to rumple some feathers, nonconformity isn’t the “easy way,” as Emerson realizes when he says: “Nonconformity would whip you with its displeasure.” (An extreme case is the short film, Skin Deep (which we may view in class), but we all have our war stories, times when we resisted conformity and paid some price for it.) Emerson asks, where does all of that disapproval come from? He suggests it comes from the people who are most conformist and pressure you to conform as well. But, in Emerson’s view, these people are about as strong and morally upright as leaves in the wind, doing and thinking only as the newspaper directs them. These are the people, in today’s society, who follow the whims and directives of the mass media, and rarely put an ounce of deep thinking into any of their opinions.
Emerson’s view of the individual is dynamic. We are creatures of growth and change. We are responsive to the world around us; we accumulate experiences, adapt to them, synthesize them, regenerate and renew ourselves. And in the process, sometimes we contradict our previous selves. Walt Whitman is one of our great American poets, and Emerson’s contemporary. He was in fact discovered by Emerson. Whitman wrote, in “Song of Myself”:
“Do I contradict myself? Then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
To be afraid of growth, afraid of change, seems antithetical to everything we are. Individuals grow and change. Conformists supply and maintain the status quo. If, as individuals, we fully embrace the process of growth and change, it’s almost certain we’ll contradict ourselves at some point. Emerson encourages us not to be afraid of that, to wear the “flip-flopper” badge as one of honor:
“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. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to day. —“Ah, so you shall be misunderstood.”—Is it bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagorus was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
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