from "Self-Reliance"
Ralph Waldo Emerson

  

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think.  This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.  It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.  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 person is the one who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force.  It uses your time and blurs the impression of your character.  If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers,--under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise person you are.  And, of course, so much force is drawn from your proper life.

But do your work, and I shall know you.  Do your work, and you shall reėnforce yourself.  A person must consider what a blindman's buff is this game of conformity.  If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.  I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church.  Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word?

Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing?  Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side,--the permitted side, not as a man but as a parish minister.  He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation.

Well, most people have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion.  This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars.  Their every truth is not quite true.  Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.  Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere.  We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression.

There is a mortifying experience in particular, which does not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean "the foolish face of praise," the forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us.  The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping willfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable sensation.

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.  And therefore we must know how to estimate a sour face.  The by-standers look askance on us in the public street or in the friend's parlor.  If this aversation had its origin in contempt and resistance like our own, we might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs.  Yet is the discontent of the multitude more formidable than that of the senate and the college.  It is easy enough for a firm person who knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes.  Their rage is decorous and prudent, for they are timid as being very vulnerable themselves.

1841

  
   

Associate with noblest people you can find; read the best books;
live with the mighty. But learn to be happy alone.  Rely upon your
own energies, and so not wait for, or depend on other people.

Thomas Davidson

  


 
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