Quote: Ralph Waldo Emerson on independence

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the 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 man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

– From “Self-Reliance” in Emerson’s first series of essays


  1. But in seeking ourselves, our independence, cannot the crowd also have a positive impact? Am I not bettered by conforming to ideas I learned from Gandhi? Is my independence not greater when shared and hashed out between friends? Absolutism in individuality is fine when it goes up the transcendental scale, but when it goes down? Rugged individuality leads to tirany as often as it finds itself on the path to enlightenment.

    I might have said “but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd can remember with sweetness the independence of solitude.” It is our memory of the independence and not the dogmatic preachings of our independence which guide a great man through the crowd.

  2. Dave: “But in seeking ourselves, our independence, cannot the crowd also have a positive impact?”

    The quote could be read as disavowing the influence of others. Funnily enough, this interpretation hadn’t really occured to me before you commented. (See below for my interpretation.)

    Certainly, the essay on “Self-reliance” from which the quote comes veers too far toward isolated individualism for my taste. I’ve only read a few of Emerson’s essays, so I’m not sure if this individualism is a general feature of his thought, or simply a manifestation of the topic of the essay (self-reliance).

    I prefer to read the quote in a slightly different way, though.

    I believe that many people (myself certainly included) find it difficult to retain a focus on what is important, amidst other distractions. This is not so hard when one is isolated; indeed, I often isolate myself to finish large projects for this reason. But in contact with others it can be quite tough.

    I use the quote as a reminder that the ideal is to be able to keep what is important firmly in mind, while still (hopefully!) being open to learn from others, and change our conception of what is important.

  3. I believe the quote states that only you know what your duty is, and it is a virtue to commit to your duty even as others may attempt to sway you to act otherwise.

    This is not inconsistent with learning from others or sharing your opinions. In fact, you probably have to do both to refine your understanding of what your duty is.

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