Emerson begins his major work on individualism by asserting the importance of thinking for oneself rather than meekly accepting other people's ideas. As in almost all of his work, he promotes individual experience over the knowledge gained from books: "To believe that what is true in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius." The person who scorns personal intuition and, instead, chooses to rely on others' opinions lacks the creative power necessary for robust, bold individualism. This absence of conviction results not in different ideas, as this person expects, but in the acceptance of the same ideas — now secondhand thoughts — that this person initially intuited.
The lesson Emerson would have us learn? "Trust thyself," a motto that ties together this first section of the essay. To rely on others' judgments is cowardly, without inspiration or hope. A person with self-esteem, on the other hand, exhibits originality and is childlike — unspoiled by selfish needs — yet mature. It is to this adventure of self-trust that Emerson invites us: We are to be guides and adventurers, destined to participate in an act of creation modeled on the classical myth of bringing order out of chaos.
Although we might question his characterizing the self-esteemed individual as childlike, Emerson maintains that children provide models of self-reliant behavior because they are too young to be cynical, hesitant, or hypocritical. He draws an analogy between boys and the idealized individual: Both are masters of self-reliance because they apply their own standards to all they see, and because their loyalties cannot be coerced. This rebellious individualism contrasts with the attitude of cautious adults, who, because they are overly concerned with reputation, approval, and the opinion of others, are always hesitant or unsure; consequently, adults have great difficulty acting spontaneously or genuinely.
Emerson now focuses his attention on the importance of an individual's resisting pressure to conform to external norms, including those of society, which conspires to defeat self-reliance in its members. The process of so-called "maturing" becomes a process of conforming that Emerson challenges. In the paragraph that begins with the characteristic aphorism "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist," he asserts a radical, even extreme, position on the matter. Responding to the objection that devotedly following one's inner voice is wrong because the intuition may be evil, he writes, "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature . . . the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it." In other words, it is better to be true to an evil nature than to behave "correctly" because of society's demands or conventions.
The non-conformist in Emerson rejects many of society's moral sentiments. For example, he claims that an abolitionist should worry more about his or her own family and community at home than about "black folk a thousand miles off," and he chides people who give money to the poor. "Are they my poor?" he asks. He refuses to support morality through donations to organizations rather than directly to individuals. The concrete act of charity, in other words, is real and superior to abstract or theoretical morality.
In a subdued, even gentle voice, Emerson states that it is better to live truly and obscurely than to have one's goodness extolled in public. It makes no difference to him whether his actions are praised or ignored. The important thing is to act independently: "What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think . . . the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." Note that Emerson contrasts the individual to society — "the crowd" — but does not advocate the individual's physically withdrawing from other people. There is a difference between enjoying solitude and being a social hermit.
Outlining his reasons for objecting to conformity, Emerson asserts that acquiescing to public opinion wastes a person's life. Those around you never get to know your real personality. Even worse, the time spent maintaining allegiances to "communities of opinion" saps the energy needed in the vital act of creation — the most important activity in our lives — and distracts us from making any unique contribution to society. Conformity corrupts with a falseness that pervades our lives and our every action: ". . . every truth is not quite true." Finally, followers of public opinion are recognized as hypocrites even by the awkwardness and falsity of their facial expressions.
Shifting the discussion to how the ideal individual is treated, Emerson notes two enemies of the independent thinker: society's disapproval or scorn, and the individual's own sense of consistency. Consistency becomes a major theme in the discussion as he shows how it restrains independence and growth.
Although the scorn of "the cultivated classes" is unpleasant, it is, according to Emerson, relatively easy to ignore because it tends to be polite. However, the outrage of the masses is another matter; only the unusually independent person can stand firmly against the rancor of the whole of society.
The urge to remain consistent with past actions and beliefs inhibits the full expression of an individual's nature. The metaphor of a corpse as the receptacle of memory is a shocking — but apt — image of the individual who is afraid of contradiction. In this vivid image of the "corpse of . . . memory," Emerson asks why people hold onto old beliefs or positions merely because they have taken these positions in the past. Being obsessed with whether or not you remain constant in your beliefs needlessly drains energy — as does conformity — from the act of living. After all, becoming mature involves the evolution of ideas, which is the wellspring of creativity. It is most important to review constantly and to reevaluate past decisions and opinions, and, if necessary, to escape from old ideas by admitting that they are faulty, just as the biblical Joseph fled from a seducer by leaving his coat in her hands, an image particularly potent in characterizing the pressure to conform as both seductive and degrading.
Noteworthy in this discussion on consistency is the famous phrase "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." The term "hobgoblin," which symbolizes fear of the unknown, furthers the effect produced by the "corpse" of memory and reinforces Emerson's condemnation of a society that demands conformity. Citing cultures that traditionally frown on inconsistency, Emerson points out that history's greatest thinkers were branded as outcasts for their original ideas — and scorned as such by their peers. Notable among these figures is Jesus Christ.
What appears to be inconsistency is often a misunderstanding based on distortion or perspective. Emerson develops this idea by comparing the progress of a person's thoughts to a ship sailing against the wind: In order to make headway, the ship must tack, or move in a zigzag line that eventually leads to an identifiable end. In the same way, an individual's apparently contradictory acts or decisions show consistency when that person's life is examined in its entirety and not in haphazard segments. We must "scorn appearances" and do what is right or necessary, regardless of others' opinions or criticisms.
Society is not the measure of all things; the individual is. "A true man," Emerson's label for the ideal individual, "belongs to no other time or place, but is the centre of all things. Where he is, there is nature." Nature is not only those objects around us, but also our individual natures. And these individual natures allow the great thinker — the ideal individual — to battle conformity and consistency.