Ralph Waldo Emerson on Self-Reliance and Nonconformity

“Insist on yourself; never imitate.” (Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a classic essay on the importance of nonconformity, individuality, and self-reliance.

The ideas contained in the essay provide a much needed antidote against the conforming pressures of our age, as Emerson was a strong believer in the importance of not identifying with the “crowd”, and instead staying true to one’s own path and inner law.

Society Against the Individual

“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” (Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Nonconformists are viewed by the majority as a threat, as individuals who need to be educated in the “ways of the world” – domesticated to the socially accepted worldview and values.

This fear of nonconformists stems from the fact that nonconformists are by their very nature creators – individuals who carve out their own view of reality, and arrive at their own idea of what it means to be a human; of what is good, beautiful, and true.

The masses despise such people for in the words of Emerson, they love “not realities and creators, but names and customs”. Names, customs, and institutions give the conformist a sense of stability and security: they are signposts and anchors they grasp onto to gain some semblance of orientation in the midst of the ambiguity and uncertainty of reality.

As a creator, the nonconformist embraces the ambiguity of reality, and carves out a life based on their uniqueness. For such an individual one’s inner law is higher than the collective laws, and the sacred within more important than the social idols worshipped by others.

“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!” (Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson)

To Be Great is to Be Misunderstood

self-relianceAccording to Emerson, one of the reasons many flee from self-reliance into the comforting womb of custom and tradition, is because of an innate need to appear consistent in the eyes of others.

Every individual is a dynamic entity. Within each of us is a network of drives, beliefs, attitudes and desires, that are forever changing and developing. To stay true to our inner law requires we remain faithful to this metamorphic character of ours; and therefore, from time to time, to contradict ourselves.

Walt Whitman expressed this idea writing:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Or as Emerson puts it, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”:

“Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.—’Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’—Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? 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. To be great is to be misunderstood.” (Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson)

The Genius Within and the Fallacy of Insignificance

“Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.” (Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson)

The 20th century author Colin Wilson asserted that the psychology of the modern individual is afflicted by a “fallacy of insignificance”. The modern individual, he wrote: “has been conditioned by society to lack self-confidence in their ability to achieve anything of real worth, and thus they conform to society to escape their feelings of unimportance and uselessness.”

Emerson too observed a fallacy of insignificance afflicting his contemporaries. He proposed that the individual could overcome this fallacy through the recognition that

“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.” (Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Such a recognition provides one with a stubborn, but healthy, insistence upon remaining true to oneself. Too many today, afflicted with a fallacy of insignificance, look outward in search of meaning and guidance to live by. They attempt to embed themselves into a social structure, in the belief that alone and without support, they are unworthy and their lives meaningless.

In Self-Reliance Emerson explains the flaws in this attitude and thus provides a remedy for the fallacy of insignificance which afflicts so many people today:

“I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested,—”But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” (Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson)

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