On Being an Individual

“Whoso would be a man (Human Being), must be a nonconformist.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Be an Individual

I am reminded of a powerful movie done during the 1960s called “Twelve Angry Men.” It starred Henry Fonda, among other talented actors. It portrayed a jury of twelve men deciding the innocence or guilt of a young Hispanic man on trial for murder. At first, the jury was almost unanimous in believing the subject was guilty, except for the lone standout, Henry Fonda. There was enormous group pressure towards a guilty verdict based on the accused person’s ethnicity, age, the wish to find him guilty, end the proceeding and go home. 

The character of Henry Fonda could stand up to the enormous pressure against his wish to explore the facts of the case much more carefully. Gradually, he urges the jury, one by one, towards changing their verdict based on “reasonable doubt.”

That movie and this issue strike at our sense of ethical thinking, moral judgment, and human decency.

Can you withstand group pressure even in the group’s face of being wrong when you know you are correct and they are wrong?

There are many real-life situations where the lines between right and wrong must be marked, and decisions are more difficult. What do you do the

Understanding Emerson’s “Who So Would Be a Man, Must Be a Nonconformist,”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America’s most prominent philosophers and essayists, is known for his deep insights into the human condition and the nature of society. Perhaps one of the most popular of his aphorisms is, “Who so would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” This essay seeks to explain the profound wisdom encapsulated within this Emersonian adage.

It is crucial to understand Emerson’s concept of “a man.” In Emerson’s perspective, “a man” is not just defined as biological. But it is also a philosophical one. He defines “a man” as an individual who exhibits authenticity, originality, and personal freedom. Hence, Emerson’s man is not merely a creature of social expectations or conventional thought. But one who cultivates his unique perspective and wisdom.

Emerson’s term “nonconformist” does not advocate for sheer rebellion or anarchy. But promotes the value of individualism and original thought over blind conformity. For Emerson, nonconformity signifies resistance to society’s dictates that suffocate individual potential and independence. Nonconformists dare to break from the established norms, not out of an attempt to be contrary but driven by their commitment to personal truth and authenticity.

In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson explores this concept further. He argues that society is in a conspiracy against the individuality of each of its members. According to Emerson, society’s norms and conventions pressure individuals to conform, suppressing their individualism. In this context, a nonconformist resists this pressure and maintains his authentic selfhood, embracing his unique perceptions, feelings, and ideas rather than relinquishing them to fit into the societal mold.

Emerson views conformity as an impediment to personal growth and the manifestation of one’s true self. Conformity, he suggests, denies us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, explore our potential, and cultivate our understanding. Nonconformity encourages self-reliance, stimulating us to seek truth and knowledge independently rather than relying on inherited wisdom. This independence of thought and action is central to Emerson’s vision of humanity.

The core of Emerson’s philosophy is the affirmation of the self. It calls on individuals to discover their unique path, declaring their intrinsic value and potential. In Emerson’s view, the journey toward selfhood is arduous, demanding courage, determination, and a willingness to stand alone. Individuals can achieve their true selves by embracing nonconformity, daring to be different, and defying society’s expectations and limitations.

In conclusion, Emerson’s quote, “Who so would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” is a powerful affirmation of individualism. It underscores the importance of authenticity, independence, and personal freedom. 

Emerson urges us to resist the pressure to conform, assert our individuality, and trust in our unique perceptions and capacities. In Emerson’s vision, being a man is to be true to oneself, resist conformity, and forge one’s path. It is an assertion of the self against the weight of societal expectations, a call to autonomy and individuality in a world that often values conformity over uniqueness.


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