Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism in America

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A lot of things change in the society either for the good or the bad of the people according to the motives of the executors. Some of the changes include technology, federal laws and also personal thoughts about self-beliefs among many more. Change in self-beliefs is quite interesting because it changes one’s perspective of how he/she views him/herself. The change happened in the 19th century between 1820 and 1830 in America when Ralph Waldo Emerson led transcendentalism on modern America. He initiated the movement of self-reliance by advocating that people should believe and follow their instincts to gain spiritual freedom and achievement, rather than blindly following the universal aspiration and expectations. In this essay, I am going to support Emerson’s views and create an argument based on his text and other texts written by other authors who have different opinions about self-reliance and conformity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a poet, lecturer and essayist born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 25, 1803, is well known for leading the transcendentalism in Eastern America. He based his evolution on logic and not on imagination. In his text of self-reliance, he says “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” (Emerson 1). By saying this, he means that whatever a man perceives in his heart, he should not dismay, and whatever thought crosses his mind at any moment, should never be disregarded no matter how stupid it may seem.

Emerson goes ahead and mentions that lest a man allows his thoughts to slip his grip due to disregards, he might have to shamefully take his own opinions from a stranger since his creative ideas will majestically find their way back. It is evident that people usually dismiss their thoughts because of arrogance due to assumptions. However, some people also dismiss their ideas with the fear of acting upon them because of the external factors that might hold them back like culture. Adherence to the societal conformity, playing by the rules of the society, most of the times act as a barrier that hinders self-growth and development. By having trust in oneself, self-reliance helps in breaking the chains that hold one back towards enlightenment that sets one free.

In Hayet Mahmoudi and Asma Yahi’s text “The Impact of Emerson’s Transcendentalism on Modern America”, Emerson says that man should not look outside himself for the truth but instead learn how to listen to his inner being so that he may be free from conformity. Here Emerson says “Ne tequaesiveris extra” which is Latin for “Do not look outside of yourself for the truth” (Mahmoudi and Yahi 16).

This proves that man can believe in his inner self to conquer and achieve the unimaginable by listening and discovering without dismissing his thoughts. This is exactly what the former president of America, Barack Obama did. He believed in himself even when majority of the people in America did not. Because of his black skin, many people thought that he did not have whatever it took for him to be the 44th president of America, but Barack still conquered and achieved. He said to the people through his web page, “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington. . . . I’m asking you to believe in yours” (Mahmoudi and Yahi 56). This was like refreshing transcendentalism since he urged the people to believe in their inner power.

At other times he said that the people should win the future. His words were charged with the passion of change, and he had the bold thirst of making people adopt difference in positive ways. He believed that to win the future, only thinking in different ways and exploring the incredible was the way. His ideas were aligned with Emerson’s when he urged the Americans to become original thinkers and not followers of orthodox. From this, it is evident that these great leaders, Emerson and the former president of the United States, both supported the separation of the people from the norms of the society that have already been laid down. They had the desire of opening up people’s minds so that they learn to perceive their thought and listen to the truth in their hearts.

At some point in his work when Emerson associates self-reliance with politics, he states that self-reliance is selfless. For this sole purpose, he wrote a letter to the president of the United States as of 1836, Martin Van Buren, asking that he should listen instead of suppressing the Native Americans because of class and rule interests (Emerson 2). However, he also states that people should not sheepishly follow obedience even from the government. He urges people should pursue intellectual and spiritual freedom by voicing their individual needs and fighting for what they believe is right even if it may seem crazy to the whole world. I would very much like to agree with him at this point but people in society today have allowed themselves to be manipulated by those in power. Today, because of the fear of the government, people adhere to the rules of the government even though they are being oppressed. For the very few enlightened that do what they feel is right, they end up brainwashed or wiped off because the states government does not want those that are against it, the superior power. I believe that fighting for what is right is something that we can do, but the fear of the unknown holds men back from achieving their desires and practicing our inner beliefs.

This fear is what keeps us chained up in societal norms. As a result, we are tied to suppressing bondages that hinder our inner freedom. This is the conformity that Emerson is so much against because once the people are afraid of practicing their true beliefs, there is no development. The society instead dwindles in enlightenment, and people are blindly governed without a say.

According to Robert B. Cialdini and Noah J. Goldstein in their work of “Social Influence: Compliance and Conformity”, they talk about the adverse effects of societal submission and conformism. They highly criticize conformity which dwarfs the society. Compliance is an individual response to a specific request. One responds to a desired way to counter communication. On the other hand, conformity is an act of social behavior to fit with a particular group of people. When carefully considered, compliance is not as severe as conformity because only the outer behaviors are changed to act accordingly unlike in conformity where even the personal beliefs change. Either way, both of them negatively affect society because originality is lost in the midst of a communication.

Usually, people comply or conform so that they may be liked, reciprocate something or so that they understand something better (Cialdini and Goldstein 598). However, at that very moment when one decides to do something to please someone else, originality is lost. Emerson in his work once said the no one should be ashamed of expressing his ideas because God never lets cowards establish His work. Looking at it from another perspective, it shows that God never made anyone lesser of the other and therefore no one should be subject of the other. As a result, everyone should practice what they believe in. Thus, even when answering to someone, no man should be afraid of voicing his opinions. That way, he might bring enlightenment and change the course for better things because of speaking up what he thinks is right.

By adhering to what is expected of you and not what you think is right greatly hinders personal development. This acts as a barrier to own success due to things like fear of being demoralized, especially by peers. However, acting on your thoughts is good because despite right and wrong having different borders, whatever your heart perceives as the right should be considered right to you at all times despite the external factors. People are afraid of being distinct from the crowds without the knowledge that great men create themselves as masterpieces of inner powers and hard work without cowardice and imitations of the crowd.

Conformity leads to lack of diversity in the society. Emerson in his self-reliance essay says “…….but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (Emerson 5). It is clear that he does not like the idea of conforming to the world because once all the people follow a particular law without deviation, nothing new flourishes due to lack of space. He says it is easy to live in the world according to its ways but also easy to live in solitude and listen to the inner being. It is because he knows that solitude gives a platform of personal growth and understanding while following the rules in the society erodes one’s truths that Emerson says this. It is tough for one to keep away from the ways that seem to be normal. But he who can do it is perceived as a great morally upright man who never lets the external factors come in his way and hamper his self-growth.

Another major shortcoming of orthodoxy is the loss of one’s identity. According to Cialdini and Goldstein, people ultimately loss their sense of originality when they are exposed to the world and follow its ways without conserving their personal beliefs. One of the changes that they undergo is behavioral mimicry (Cialdini and Goldstein 609). This is the unconscious portrayal of other people’s behaviors like facial expressions, mannerisms, vocal characteristics and postures among others. Behavioral mimicry may not be intentional, but lack of guard of self-truth leads to erosion of personal character.

Self-reliance is essential because it makes one believe in him. It leads one to find the unimaginable that he never thought of. Self-reliance allows one to be cautious of his behaviors in the outer world where people of diverse backgrounds interact and very mindful of his thoughts. This alertness makes one guard his heart at all costs and conserve his identity. However, people today still comply and conform to the ways of the world. For example, in workplaces, the juniors will have to do anything, even that which they do not believe in to please their seniors. They will agree to their suggestions and act to their commands, even when wrong, to gain trust and favors. This creates a controversy today between self-reliance and conformity.

Should one conform to the authorities set and keep his job or stick to his inner truth, stay free from orthodox setbacks and risk his career due to lack of agreement? Very few people opt to risk their jobs and stand for the truth that illuminates their heart. They keep their dignity at all costs and guard their hearts to adhere to that which is right. Such are the great people who only account for a small percentage in society. The more significant percentage compromise and conform to the community for the exchange of their truth. This changes one’s heart and depresses the truth. Therefore, society dwarfs in the name of progress that only oppress.

I believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinions and rights to do whatever they please. However, guarding the heart, keeping the truth illuminated and upholding dignity surpasses compromise of conformity. It is only through guarding the heart that a man lives in the ways of God and he speaks of the truth that gives him the ability of living and seeing truly. A man who lives with goodness and life within him shall never discern to live another man’s life because he is contented with his life at all times. This brings forth tremendous peace and success of principles.


Transcendentalism was a revolution in the eastern US during the 19th century which brought a whole new perspective of thinking to the Americans. It was led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendentalist who wanted people to find truth and power in themselves without looking from without their selves. This movement was to change the thinking perspective of the people from conformity to self-confidence. This revolution was meant to make people take a turn from compliance and conformity to the society and to wholly believe in what they perceive to be true. Some of the effects of conforming to the society are loss of identity and lack of diversity because of adherence to same rules. This dwarfs the development of the society because conformity instead kills originality and diversity thus acts as a barrier to enlightenment. Even when people compromise their truth for survival and fitting in, I think self-reliance illuminates in unbelievable ways.

Works Cited

  1. Cialdini, Robert B., and Noah J. Goldstein. ‘SOCIAL INFLUENCE: Compliance and Conformity.’ Department of Psychology, 11 July 2003, pp. 591-621, doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.142015. Accessed 25 Apr. 2019.
  2. Emerson, Ralph W. ‘Self-Reliance.’ 1841, p. 21. Accessed 25 Apr. 2019.
  3. Emerson, Ralph W. ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Letter.’ 1836, p. 3, cherokee.org/About-The-National/History/Trail-of-Tears/Ralph-Waldo-Emersons-Letter. Accessed 25 Apr. 2019.
  4. Mahmoudi, Hayet and Yahi Asma. The Impact of Emerson’s Transcendentalism on Modern America. 2017. Univeersity of Tlemcen, MA thesis. Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Accessed 2016.


Cite this paper

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism in America. (2021, Jan 27). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/ralph-waldo-emerson-and-transcendentalism-in-america/

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