"Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I've been meaning to write an article dedicated to Emerson for some time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American writer, speaker, philosopher, and poet who lived two centuries ago, yet whose essays continue to resonate today. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts and raised by his mother. In high school, he was merely a mediocre student, graduating in the middle of his class. He met and married his wife, Ellen, in 1827, but she died two years later from tuberculosis; Emerson seemed to take her death hard.
Having been raised a Christian, Emerson was ordained as a pastor two years later. Yet it appears that his first wife's untimely passing awakened a voice within him, a voice that perhaps had always been there, but suppressed by outer forces. Whatever the case, he began to disagree with many of the ideas espoused by his own church, putting his thoughts to paper in his journal:
The nonconformist in his earlier years.
Eventually, Emerson's disagreements with the church culminated in his resignation only a few years after he had been ordained. He travelled around Europe for a year, exploring his inner voice and its possibilities before returning close to home - to Concord, Massachusetts - where he envisioned a calling that was not that of the pastor, but that of the essayist and lecturer. He started writing, married his second wife, Lidian, and followed his calling.
Ultimately, Emerson championed transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that emphasized the inherent goodness of each individual. Transcendentalists believed that societal institutions corrupted the purity of the individual, and that people were truly at their best when they were self-reliant. His religious beliefs became atypical for the time; perhaps they would be atypical for any time. Emerson believed that all things are connected to God, erego all things are divine. Jesus was indeed a great man, but Emerson believed that Christianity had turned him into a "demigod" (which of course outraged the the church establishment). When questioned on his religious belief, he replied:
"I believe in the still, small voice, and that voice is Christ within us."
What did he mean by this, exactly?
Emerson believed that all individuals had been given an inner voice, or inward leader, that provided us with the wisest of counsels and was available to us in virtually any situation. This inward leader does not force itself upon our mind; rather, it manifests in a more intuitive way, a "slow discrimination" that gradually dawns on us as the best way to decide what to do in any particular situation. The trick with the inward leader is to listen to it - not so easy, given there the many competing influences from both the environment and one's own mind. Thus, Emerson was a fan of solitude, of spending much time alone with one's own thoughts and musings so as to gain a clearer perception of the inward leader:
"You are rightly fond of certain books or men that you have found to excite your reverence and emulation. But none of these can compare with the greatness of that counsel which is open to you in happy solitude. I mean that there is for you the following of an inward leader - a slow discrimination that there is a Best Counsel which enjoins the fit word and the fit act for every moment."
Yet Emerson suggested it was not enough for a person to listen to the whispering of their inward leader; they also had to act on it. Doing so would lead to success in life. Yet how he defined success was against the grain of how it was often perceived then (and today); perhaps the world's most successful people are those who remain unknown by many and loved by few:
The nonconformist in his middle years.
If successful according to this definition, any individual could become wealthy. Emerson's version of wealth could take many forms, financial or otherwise; the key was for a person to figure out their calling - something they might already be good at, but could master - and invest their time and effort in their calling, with the proviso that the calling had to always, in some way, help others:
"As long as your genius buys, the investment is safe, though you spend like a monarch. Nature arms each man which enables him to do easily some feat impossible to any other, and thus makes him necessary to society...set down nothing that will not help somebody."
There are many influences today that disrupt a person's inward leader; taking the time and effort to remove all external and internal distractions to truly listen is not easy, but does create new possibilities.
Sticking To Solitude
By advocating solitude as a path to the discovery of the inward leader, Emerson hinted that each individual would inevitably become a nonconformist, a person who, in a general sense, refuses to be bound by widely accepted ideas, customs, or attitudes (2). Yet to remain a nonconformist, even when one heard and acted on their inward leader...not so easy. There is a universe of difference between having or acting on a principled thought, and living in accordance with that principled thought daily, especially when prevailing notions continue to be accepted by the majority of individuals in one's society:
"It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."
Yet Emerson believed that only through listening to the inward leader could a person achieve a life of principle, a life necessarily characterized by nonconformity to the institutions of the day, a life that might be the only way a person could find any real sense of peace. There are many things we look forward to as the years roll on, yet without a life of principle, that deep, subdued, gnawing sense of unease can never be stilled:
"A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favourable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."
The nonconformist in his later years.