The need to protect the integrity of our own minds is an idea with a long history.
It was examined by American transcendentalist thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who both denounced the conformity of their age.
An essayist, lecturer, poet, and philosopher, Emerson remains one of the most influential writers in the American canon. His seminal essay “Self-Reliance,” published in 1841, is both timeless and timely reading.
As Emerson noted of American society, “The virtue in most request is conformity.” In response, he promoted self-reliance as an antidote to mindless obedience.
This idea is relevant today when so many are content to go along with popular narratives, often disregarding objective evidence and common sense. But those willing to adopt a philosophy of self-reliance will find the complicated world presents a valuable opportunity to cultivate their character in the face of external pressure.
The Pitfalls of Conformity
In our connected digital world, there are powerful influences conspiring against our mental and moral independence. Loyalty to a particular worldview often takes the place of individuality. So too in Emerson’s time was conformity deemed superior to the individual.
A functioning society calls for a degree of cooperation, but there is a point where conformity can take on the characteristics of oppression. The citizens of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany made compromises for their self-preservation, thinking it better to go with the tide than swim against it. When they fully realized the dangers of their passive approach, it was too late to change course.
Conformity can only become tyranny when too few adopt an attitude of self-reliance. Those who are willing to engage in self-reflection and speak their minds have tremendous power to set things right. In addition to fulfilling a duty to society, the self-reliant individual embarks on a path of self-actualization inaccessible to the common man.
As Emerson puts it: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. 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.”
Bombarded as we are by biased facts and opinions, viewing the world through an independent lens is no easy feat.
The Advantage of Self-Reliance
When we choose to express ourselves freely and honestly, trials and tribulations will inevitably arise. As Emerson states, “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” As such, independent thinkers must necessarily endure the contempt of their fellow man.
At times we will be tempted to throw in the towel and concede defeat. But Emerson implores us to “abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”
To trust oneself in spite of mounting pressure from those who forgo critical thought takes grit and independence, hard-won by weathering the jeers of the crowd. When we stand our ground in the face of adversity, we cultivate an inner integrity that will aid us when times get dark.
This doesn’t mean we must take to the streets and impose our views on the world; rather we should consult with our conscience and express our heartfelt impressions without fear, anger, or judgment, and allow others to do the same. We shouldn’t expect others to conform to us, but rather seek to rouse the hidden genius in our fellow man.
When the whole of society is gripped by an unhealthy conformity, it’s the duty of those who would help the world regain its composure to speak their convictions and engage fully in the battle of ideas. If we steadfastly hold to our better instincts, we can become Emerson’s “guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.”
Great men have always chosen their own paths and dared to go against the orthodoxy of their day. The hero’s journey calls for such sacrifice. The greatest men do so with humility and absolute trust in the transcendent.
As Emerson so eloquently stated: “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.”