“Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Emerson has used this phrase in the context that if people misunderstand a person due to his different ideas from the masses, then the person is, in fact, a great thinker.
This line implies that usually general population does not accept or understand greatness. As long as a person lives with his dreams and passions, whether accepted or not, it is right for his well-being. Another interpretation of this phrase can be that someone sees a completely different perspective of ideas and things in such a way that no one has ever thought or seen them before, because of their outlook about things and ideas is unusual.
This phrase applies to many eminent and famous people like Albert Einstein, Newton, Socrates, Pythagoras, Copernicus and Galileo, etc. However, we can use it in our everyday and professional lives too. Especially it can be useful in creative writing and writers can express their innovative ideas by employing this phrase. Likewise, scientists, painters and architects can also use this phrase for supporting their ideas and beliefs. Politicians can use this to assert their greatness. Teachers can use this in the class to teach greatness to the students.
Emerson has used this phrase metaphorically in the fourteenth paragraph of his essay. He goes on to proceed by mentioning a number of great individuals, including Socrates, Jesus, Pythagoras, and Copernicus. Initially, all of them were misunderstood due to their unique and great ideas, he says,
‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’—Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
The idea behind this phrase is that an urge to be consistent with past beliefs and actions inhibits an individual to express his nature and be innovation. Misunderstanding is a figurative expression of greatness. Emerson tells the people that they need not to hold onto the old positions and beliefs merely because their elders held them. He suggests individuals that become mature, brings evolution of new ideas that is a source of creativity. Therefore, in order to escape from past beliefs, it is important to reevaluate and review past opinions and decisions, admitting their flaws. In doing so, the new ideas and beliefs would appear inconsistent and often misunderstood. Despite that, they would be very creative and unique to be misunderstood.