Society is nothing but a corrupter of the individual and the captor of man’s thoughts, at least this is what transcendentalists believe. In his work, “Self-Reliance,” famous transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson dissects this philosophy, and explains what society specifically does to entrap its members, how they can escape it, and discover who they are as individuals. Similarly, his pupil, Henry David Thoreau, in the chapter “Economy” from his book Walden, explores this same idea, but uses an experimental approach and equips his findings to teach his audience how to do these things. Comparatively, both authors believed that society’s greed and demand for conformity will be the downfall of the individual, that being self-reliant is the key for finding freedom from society and expressing one’s individuality, and that nature can act as guide for breaking away from society’s constraints; however, their views on what it means to be self-reliant and how to obtain individuality are slightly different.
In both of their writings, Emerson and Thoreau state that as society progresses it causes humanity to weaken because it has caused man to lose their independence, and therefore their individuality. To Emerson, “society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder… the virtue in most request is conformity,” meaning society glorifies and demands conformity and consistency from its members, forcing individuals to adhere to its expectations of what is normal, moral, and life-fulfilling (Emerson 3). Because society has tricked its members into believing this is the only way to live, individuals have been forced to give up their freedom, identity, and creativity, which is what ultimately makes them unique. In addition to criticizing conformity, Thoreau also criticizes society’s obsession with materialism and the “luxuries” that come with it. Thoreau states, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” meaning individuals are not happy with their lives, but do not have the time to think about what would ultimately bring them satisfaction (Thoreau 317). Because society has tricked individuals into thinking these luxuries are necessities, it causes them to waste away their lives trying to afford these futile goods. Subsequently, both agree that these aspects of society has caused man to lose itself.
So now that the problem has been identified, what solution do Emerson and Thoreau offer? Their mutual answer: for the individual to become more self-reliant. Emerson explicitly states, “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members… self-reliance is its aversion,” meaning self-reliance is the only thing that will break individuals free from the American culture of consistency (3). In addition to this, Emerson states, “discontent is the want of self-reliance,” meaning self-reliance will not just free the individual, but bring them happiness as well (16). Similarly, relating back to society’s obsession with materials, Thoreau states that self-reliance is more important than neediness. Both writer’s views of self-reliance are economical, social, spiritual, and philosophical. In Walden, self-reliance is expressed economically when Thoreau supported himself financially by his own means, and then socially when he states he is content with his solitude and that he values human companionship, but only when it occurs on his terms. In Emerson’s work, self-reliance is spiritually and philosophically expressed as he explains that self is the center of reality, making everything external just a projection of the reality that comes from the inner self, emphasizing the way humankind and the world rely on self to exist.
Although both authors acknowledge that self-reliance is the solution to society’s problem, they share slightly different views on what self-reliance should look like. To Emerson, self-reliance means to completely trust and rely on one’s self and their individual path and thoughts. He instructs his audience to live a nonconformist life and that this practice, in addition to developing their own ideas and thoughts, will lead them to finding their individuality. Emerson states, “to believe your own thought, to believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius,” and that, “imitation is suicide,” meaning through the exercise of the individual’s own creative energy and personal thoughts, individuals can discover who they are and what they can do, but they cannot do this unless they trust these creative powers and put them to use (1,2). On the other hand, Thoreau believes that self-reliance means living a simplified life that is economically independent from society and minimizes consumerism. Thoreau states, “in short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain
one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely,” meaning individuals should live off of what is only necessary in life, like food and shelter, and that they should meet these needs based on their own means and not from society’s resources (351). Society teaches that money and materials define a person’s worth, but Thoreau states that self-reliance and living simplistically will allow individuals to break away from this stigma and find their own worth as individuals.
Despite Emerson and Thoreau having slightly contrasting views on what it means to be self-reliant, both agree that nature can act as a guide to finding one’s individuality. To Emerson, nature provides the means for which the individual can go beyond themselves and think about life itself, resulting in the development of a deeper understanding of self-reliance and the individual. Emerson sees nature as a model of how individuals ought to be living. For example, he states, “these roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose;” meaning individuals have developed the tendency to follow establishments created by society and are constricted by them, but if they learn to model after the rose, which only knows itself and has no constraints, they could better understand what it means to be themselves and live self-reliantly (11). Furthermore, according to Thoreau, society has taught individuals to have wants beyond their needs, which is what ultimately keeps them from experiencing their individuality because they are so distracted by trying to afford these extra goods. This is why he conducts his experiment at Walden Pond, so he could prove that living simplistically will bring the individual closer to nature and ultimately help them find true happiness, peace, and knowledge. Thoreau sees nature as a teacher that will show individuals what is actually necessary for life, which it can provide for them, keeping them away from society’s distractions and helping them gain independence, freedom, and purpose, and therefore their individuality.
In conclusion, although Emerson and Thoreau had contrasting views on what it means to be self-reliant, both undoubtedly believe it is the solution to the overall issue of society’s entrapment the individual. By educating their audience about what self-reliance looks like and how to live it out, Emerson and Thoreau hope more individuals will be able to break free from society and learn to trust their instincts. Afterall, before society, only the individual existed, and by reverting back to those primitive ways of trusting oneself, the individual will be authenticated and find its place apart from society.