In Ralph Waldo Emersonís essay "Self Reliance" and Henry David Thoreauís essay "Resistance to Civil Government" ("Civil Disobedience"), both transcendentalist thinkers speak about being individual and what reforms and changes need to be made in society.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and his disciple, Henry David Thoreau, who were individualists, attacked the dominant religious, political, and cultural values of American society in order to make people aware that they are more important than everything, including government and society. According to Emerson, society is a barrier against the individuality of its members; and he continued:
"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. The virtue in most request is conformity."
The solution, for Emerson, is self-reliance, meaning that man is only responsible for his own life and he shouldnít be too enveloped in society, which is one of the main principles of Transcendentalism. The other principle is individualism, which was expressed in Thoreauís "civil Disobedience":
"I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right."
And in "Self Reliance" by Emerson: "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."
Thoreau was Emersonís student, he stayed with him for a while and was affected by his ideas, especially concerning with individual and society. Emersonís idea that in society the heart and power of man is drawn out and ignored, which makes people afraid of expressing their own ideas as well as being afraid of truth, led Thoreau to think that:
"Everyone has an obligation to himself and himself, alone. Too many people in society conform to what the government says is right and moral, when the true meaning of right or moral comes from what each individual holds to be what is right. To become a true individual is to make every decision based upon your own personal belief of its morality, no matter what society says, and to act upon your belief accordingly."
The common idea in Emersonís "Self reliance" and Thoreauís "Civil Disobedience" is the fact that in order to be an individual one must be a non-conformist: "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." says Emerson and adds:
"He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world."
Emersonís insistence on being an individual and finding the truth within yourself is astonishing. He says: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
Thoreau followed the same way, as well; but he chose the government as a target and pointed it as a hinder on the way of being a man, as it makes people machines which are programmed to serve for the government: "The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies." Thoreau tended to attack the government as an entity that promoted conformity and that people used to alleviate their own moral obligations. Emerson tended to promote individualism in thought and action, and promote the idea that individualism allowed one to survive in a changing society.
Although Emerson and Thoreau were appreciated by many people -especially the transcendentalists such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Robert Frost, and famous political leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King,Jr-, there were several criticisms on their doctrine of individualism and non-conformity. It is very surprising to find a passage which claims that Emerson and Thoreau were not individualists on the internet site of individualists:
"On the surface, Emerson and Thoreau appear to have been model individualists. But underneath the surface, the their philosophy was rooted in anti-individualist religious doctrines."
Also the statement goes on:
"It is ironic that, in encouraging individuals to break away from social norms, Emerson and Thoreau also urged individuals to mindlessly obey the will of a supposed God. If Emerson had made the relationship between conformity and nonconformity in his philosophy explicit, he might have said, "Whoso would be a nonconformist must first conform to God."
Another criticism is from Michelle Aaron , who believes that the problem with Thoreauís theories is his arrogance in ascertaining that if everyone were to become a "true" individual, then they would have a common ground, and succumb to his way of thinking. She adds:
"I believe that, in reality, the more individualistic we become, the farther apart our views become. People need some sort of common ground to compromise on, that's true, but society, and conforming to that society somewhat, helps us find that common ground."
It is not surprising for Emerson and Thoreau to get criticisms as their individualism was uncommon even in their own time. However, they gave intellectual definition to a diffuse cultural tendency in need of a spokesman. Nineteenth-century Americans earned the world's respect with their business talent and inventiveness, but from the start world opinion berated them for their individualistic attitudes. What Emerson said to the world, in effect, was that individualism was the virtue that made Americans' achievement possible.
It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance - a new respect for the divinity in man - must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.
Here he implies how much greater Americans' achievements would be if they were to enshrine their individualism instead of minimizing it.
Emerson thought that all great works were products of individualism and self reliance, claiming that:
"In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another."
In a similar way, Thoreauís main theme theme in his well-known essay, "Resistance to Civil Government" was the necessity of keeping our own ideas and conscience against the unjust authority:
"If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth--certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong, which I condemn."
The factor, which led Thoreau to be in favour of non-conformity, is Emerson, of course. He considered individuality as doing whatever he wanted and ignoring what the people think, which we can find in his words: "What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think." He explains his words and tries to justify himself by adding that:
"This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude 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."
According to Thoreau and Emerson, individuals are responsible for themselves and should not ask for protection from the state. In his "Self Reliance", Emerson advised men to trust themselves and accept the society of their contemporaries, the connection of events that God found for them.
"Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being."
He regarded the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, as the want of self-reliance, and thought that men have looked away from themselves and at things so long, that they have come to esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. He claimed:
"It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail."
In the same way, Thoreau expressed in his famous essay "Resistance to Civil Government" that when he conversed with the freest of his neighbors, he perceived that, whatever they might say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question, and their regard for the public tranquility, the long and the short of the matter was, that they could not spare the protection of the existing government, and they dreaded the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it. He said that:
"For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State."
And added that: "You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs , in order to avoid of the reliance on the protection of the State, which indicates the necessity of living simply."
Emerson and Thoreau defined how an individual must be, which can be summed up as trusting your own ideas, finding the truth within yourself as Emerson says: "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself" and not to let society suppress your individuality. Furthermore, individuals are responsible for themselves and should not ask for protection from the state. The man of principle cannot be constrained into any wrongdoing and will not compromise his freedom and integrity. According to these American writers, the cause of peace is not for the cowardly preservation of the safety of the luxurious and the timid. Sanderson Beck states in his essay on "Emersonís Transcendentalism" that:
"Peace must be maintained by true heroes who are willing to stake their lives for their principle and who go beyond the traditional hero in that they will not threaten another man's life-"men who have, by their intellectual insight or else by their moral elevation, attained such a perception of their own intrinsic worth that they do not think property or their own body a sufficient good to be saved by such dereliction of principle as treating a man like a sheep."
It is certain that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were quite influential in the development of the USA, taking into consideration the fact that they instilled self-confidence and freedom of thought in the minds of American people. However it is difficult to say the same thing today as the citizens of the United States are less self-reliant today than they used to be, as Bryan Caplan says in his essay "Self-Reliance and Creative Destruction":
"Despite some impressive efforts to develop a distinctly American intellectual tradition, the cultural elite of the United States gradually accepted many of the world's complaints about Americans' 'excessive individualism'; these complaints then spread throughout the broader culture. What is especially dangerous is that the decline of individualism is self-perpetuating; diminished self-reliance makes it possible for the power of the government to expand, which teaches future generations to rely upon the protective comfort of the government rather than themselves."
Consequently, Emerson and Thoreau were among the founders of transcendentalism in American literature. Both writers emphasized the importance of the soul and nature and they complemented their views and their views on individalism and self-reliance effected not only literature but also politics and society in the United States.
Aaron, Michelle, "Thoreau and Individualism"
Beck, Sanderson, "Emersonís Transcendentalism"
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, "Self Reliance" Essays (Boston, 1841)
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, "The Conduct of Life" 1860, Power
Thoreau, Henry David, "Resistance to Civil Government" taken from The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume I (London: Norton &Co.1993)
"Transcendentalism-The Anti-Individualist Philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau"