To live as a person of conscience is a difficult thing when the world wants everyone to travel along the same path and stick to the status quo. One’s conscience is never fully formed, and is always developing with each new day and experience. But, to live as a person with a good conscience is to live according to one’s own laws and morals.
A person who is in touch with their conscience knows to disrupt the peace when necessary. Someone who follows the leader blindly will never get to exercise their conscience. To live a life of staring at someone else’s back while they call the shots, make the plays, run the race, is to live an incomplete life. The task that each person is given when they are born is to not just become another cog in the machine. This task is only completed by the few people that are brave enough to step out of line, even when, as Emerson describes, “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure”. The men and women that step out of line and stand up for their beliefs should be celebrated instead of punished, but the society that people have lived in and will continue to live in is a society that punishes a person of conscience because people are scared of what they don’t know, and not many people know what it is to stand up for what it is that one believes in. A person that is not a cog in the machine is someone who prioritizes their conscience over going with the flow and taking the easy way. Some people are trapped in themselves and are scared to take any risks against the flow of society, and Emerson scolds that attitude, saying “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall” (Emerson, page number) Emerson feels as though many people are reluctant to share their greatness, and as a result, are forced into a boredom of life, and a world that is missing out on a significant point of view. If a nobody becomes a somebody, and creates a difference in the world, they are not rewarded, but punished, and so each individual must hide their true selves because of a fear of being caught. As Emily Dickinson describes in her poem, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” being a somebody in society is not welcomed and to be a somebody is a scary thing. Dickinson portrays the trepidation that could be felt by someone who felt a new idea or a new way by writing: “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you — Nobody — Too? / Then there’s a pair of us! /… How dreary — to be — Somebody!” (74). People are scared to be somebody because they are scared of backlash they can receive because of being somebody different, and somebody that has new ideas.
Having a good conscience means trusting one’s own morality over the laws that the government and society create. Following the law is not always a bad thing, and it can be very dangerous and detrimental to break many laws. That being said, some rules and laws may not seem right to follow. A person with a strong conscience will be able to see that they must follow the laws from within themselves instead of following the law that has been placed on them by society. As Thoreau asks in “Civil Disobedience,” “Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?” What Thoreau is questioning is the rightness of elected leaders deciding what is right and wrong for the people, and each leader claiming to have the people’s best interest in mind. Thoreau asks why the government locks people up for following their own morality instead of the government’s laws, and, referring to his time in jail, describes his thoughts while staring at the cell wall. Thoreau knows that he is more free in his cell than people are outside because of his freedom to follow his conscience and states “I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was still a more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was” (65). The people where he lived were more jailed than he, because he knew he would only follow the laws of his conscience and not the laws imposed on him by the government.
When each person is born they are placed on an assembly line and built piece by piece to fit in the way that society wants. Everyone has the ability to get out of line and be their own person, but not everyone takes the leap of faith into the unknowns of being one’s own self and being different. It is a punishable crime to stand up for a belief, and it is also a crime to stand out in a crowd. The idea of nonconformity has existed for centuries, but people are still afraid to be different, and to be the same is to be normal in society. In “Self Reliance,” Emerson describes the killing of one’s self by becoming yet another cookie cutter person that society wants everyone to be by saying: “envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide”. To covet what another person has is to not know what one has in themself, and not recognize their own abilities, and to imitate is to not exist. When a person becomes the same as another, they might as well be dying, because they are not reaching the possible potential in their lives. A man or woman with a strong conscience knows that they can change their mind if their conscience tells them to do so. Someone with a weak conscience chooses to believe that “the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them”. A person who does not act with their conscience believes that their past actions, if they have pleased people, are what they should live by because they have pleased others in the past. A strong conscience tells a person that even if their actions in the past have been accepted, if they change their mind they can act on it, despite the backlash that may be received. Emerson sees each human being as a possibility for greatness by following their conscience, or as a possibility of yet another person sticking to how society has molded them. He describes how beautiful it is to be different by writing “…but the great man is he who in the midst of a crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude…”. Someone who blends in with a crowd can never be truly happy, as a person who is able to continue their individuality, uninterrupted, in a crowd of people who want them to change themselves.
Someone who lives as a person of conscience is someone that lives with the fact that they weren’t made to be a cookie cutter person, and that they are here to make a difference. A person of conscience knows what it’s like to stand out in a crowd, and be an individual that fights for their own beliefs instead of the beliefs of other people leading a line of imitations. Society isn’t necessarily ready for every person to live my their own morals, but Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson call each person to lead a life of independence. Living by one’s conscience is to live not as a cog in a machine, but as a person who values conscience over law, and who knows themselves as an individual, as different and free as possible.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self Reliance.” Literature of the United States, 1841.
- Dickinson, Emily. “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Literature of the United States, 1859-1862.
- Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” Literature of the United States, 1849.