Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two American philosophers whose separate works inspired one another. The two philosophers sought to present the reality of life and what it feels to live a normal life. As such, they subjected themselves to different living conditions to make their works a success. Their main area of concern was related to Transcendentalism, a theme, which dominated their literary works. Therefore, this essay will aim at comparing the works of Emerson and Thoreau by explicitly focusing on how they developed the theme of Transcendentalism and saw how the separate works inspired one another.
The transcendentalism philosophy combined the theories of idealism and the love for nature. As such, transcendentalism proposers made their decisions based on the underlying event observation in the real world, and the process ignored the social institutions as the premises upon which decisions and reasoning are formed (Gatta, p. 48). Their works also comprised of natural things, as they exist in the environment without any form of interruption. In this sense, both Emerson and Thoreau exhibited ideological and naturalistic personalities. By that, it is to mean that the two personalities transcended the barrier, which existed between self and nature.
Transcendentalism is a philosophical school of thought, which advocates for the need to use one’s observation, experience, and self-reliance in determining a cause of action and not necessarily use the social institutions to achieve this noble cause. For instance, it can argue that one does not need the social institutions such as the priesthood to communicate to God, but one can rely on self to communicate to God. The transcendentalism philosophy promotes individualism at the expense of social institutions, which traditionally dictated the way things were done in a society (Jenkins, p. 40-42). Hence, throughout the works, there is a deeper connection between the self-reliance and naturalism.
Emerson believed that in understanding the true and deeper meaning of life, one ought to live a simple life. He shows how nature has given fulfillment in his life, “I find something more dear and connate then the streets of the villages. In the tranquil landscape”(Emerson, 556). In addition to living simply, Emerson stated that it is important to connect between the active soul and the self-reliance. As such, Emerson states that although the soul is one of the valued resources, which every person has, not every individual has made their soul active to benefit from its importance (Thoreau, p. 1849-1856) effectively. Thus, Emerson motivates individuals to understand the importance of their soul and make it active to benefit maximally from this crucial human resource. He also writes, ‘Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy’ (Emerson, 554). He is trying to influence the readers to open our eyes and pay attention because answers are all around us. Emerson works tried to portray the existing relationship between self-reliance and naturalism.
Thoreau benefitted from the work of Emerson in several ways. For instance, Thoreau practiced the virtue of living simply when he decided to live in the Walden Pond. The virtue of living simply, he did in the spirit of Emerson’s works in which he resorted to understanding the true meaning of life by not learning it from other social institutions, but by having his own experience through observation of events. Within ‘Resistance to Civil Government,’ Thoreau shared these ideas, ‘what is tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, each instant losing some of its integrity?’ (Thoreau, 903). Thoreau states that submission to the government was not a necessity because their way of doing things is not the only correct way. He says, ‘I heartily accept the motto, – ‘That government is best which governs least; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically’ (Thoreau, 843). Although the works of Thoreau in most cases resembled those of Emerson, there are instances where the two philosophers differed. For instance, while Emerson came out strongly as pro-self-reliance, Thoreau, on the other hand, was of more pro-naturalism, a difference which did their works to contradict each other in one way or another (Woodward-Burns, p. 29-54).
The works of Emerson and Thoreau revolved around the theme of transcendentalism, which sought to explain the need to understand the true meaning of life. As such, the works of these philosophers outlined the importance of understanding life by living simply as opposed to learning it from social institutions. To this, their works promoted individualism as the sole factor in better understanding what life is.
- Gatta, John. ‘Sacramental Communion with Nature: From Emerson on the Lord’s Supper to Thoreau’s Transcendental Picnic.’ Religions 9.2 (2018): 48.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol 9, Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, NY, 2017, PP. 556
- Jenkins, Martin. ‘Brief Lives: Henry David Thoreau.’ Philosophy Now 123 (2017): 40-42.
- Levine, R.S. (2017). The Norton Anthology: American Literature. New York, United States: W.W. Norton, Incorporated.
- Thoreau, Henry David, Resistance to Civil Government, The Norton Anthology American Literature, Vol 9, Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, NY, 2017, pp. 903.
- Thoreau, Henry D. The Correspondence of Henry D. Thoreau: Volume 2: 1849-1856. Vol. 28. Princeton University Press, 2018.
- Woodward-Burns, Robinson. ‘Solitude Before Society: Emerson on Self-Reliance, Abolitionism, and Moral Suasion.’ Polity 48.1 (2016): 29-54.