Society and Solitude
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
An essay first published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1857.
Weighing the benefits of society as well as solitude, the essay concludes that both are important; so, it argues, is the preservation of individualism in larger society.
I fell in with a humourist on my travels, who had in his chamber a cast of the Rondanini Medusa, and who assured me that the name which that fine work of art bore in the catalogues was a misnomer, as he was convinced that the sculptor who carved it intended it for Memory, the mother of the Muses. In the conversation that followed, my new friend made some extraordinary confessions. "Do you not see," he said, "the penalty of learning, and that each of these scholars whom you have met at S--, though he were to be the last man, would, like the executioner in Hood's poem, guillotine the last but one?" He added many lively remarks, but his evident earnestness engaged my attention, and, in the weeks that followed, we became better acquainted. He had good abilities, a genial temper, and no vices; but he had one defect,—he could not speak in the tone of the people. There was some paralysis on his will, such that, when he met men on common terms, he spoke weakly, and from the point, like a flighty girl. His consciousness of the fault made it worse. He envied every drover and lumberman in the tavern their manly speech. He coveted Mirabeau's don terrible de la familiarite," believing that he whose sympathy goes lowest is the man from whom kings have the most to fear. For himself, he declared that he could not get enough alone to write a letter to a friend. He left the city; he hid himself in pastures. The solitary river was not solitary enough; the sun and moon put him out. When he bought a house, the first thing he did was to plant trees. He could not enough conceal himself. Set a hedge here; set oaks there—trees behind trees; above all, set evergreens, for they will keep a secret all the year round. The most agreeable compliment you could pay him was, to imply that you had not observed him in a house or a street where you had met him. Whilst he suffered at being seen where he was, he consoled himself with the delicious thought of the inconceivable number of places where he was not. All he wished of his tailor was to provide that sober mean of colour and cut which would never detain the eye for a moment. He went to Vienna, to Smyrna, to London. In all the variety of costumes—a carnival, a kaleidoscope of clothes—to his horror he could never discover a man in the street who wore anything like his own dress. He would have given his soul for the ring of Gyges. His dismay at his visibility had blunted the fears of mortality. "Do you think," he said, "I am in such great terror of being shot—I, who am only waiting to shuffle off my corporeal jacket, to slip away into the back stars, and put diameters of the solar system and sidereal orbits between me and all souls, there to wear out ages in solitude, and forget memory itself, if it be possible?"
PORTRAIT: Ralph Waldo Emerson by Eastman Johnson (1846).
CITATION INFORMATION (in MLA format): Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Society and Solitude." Gleeditions, 1 Mar. 2011, www.gleeditions.com/societyandsolitude/students/pages.asp?lid=413&pg=5. Originally published in Society and Solitude and Other Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, E. P. Dutton, 1916, pp. 1-7.