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Transcendentalism: Ralph Emerson vs Henry Thoreau Research Paper


Transcendentalism is the movement in literature, philosophy, and religion developed in the first part of the 19th century in the USA. This movement is associated with the development of some of the major American values, including individualism, creativity, and the focus on action (Roy 2). Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau can be regarded as the two most remarkable figures among transcendentalists as the former developed a sound theoretical basis for the movement while the latter followed the theoretical principles and applied them in his real life. These two thinkers contributed greatly to the development of the movement through the focus on certain basic values and principles as well as the promotion of particular aspects of the overall paradigm.

One of the most important principles of transcendentalism was the belief that old institutions were full of flaws. For instance, religion was among the primary targets of criticism as the institution of religion was too rigid and far from nature and real life. Emerson claimed that there could be no institutions or people between the individual and God (Goodman 149). Interestingly, he could provide sound arguments to support his point as he could have become a minister like his father, so he knew many facets of the religious life of American society. Thoreau followed Emerson’s point and stressed that it was unnatural to build any boundaries between the self and the universe. The thinkers stressed that people were created as a part of the natural world, which made any institutions unnecessary and even harmful.

Importantly, thinkers also criticized other types of institutions. They were devout abolitionists and supporters of the movement for women’s rights. Clearly, Emerson and Thoreau believed that all people were created equal, so there could be no difference when it came to their rights and opportunities (Goodman 206). It is noteworthy that one of Emerson’s primary postulates is the belief that the individual’s potential is limitless, so it was unnatural and vicious to put any restrictions or limits. Thoreau went even further as he emphasized the need to be fully integrated into the natural setting and live a simple life that meant no rules or regulations that were not consistent with the laws of nature. As for the terrain of literature, the two thinkers promoted the ideas of creativity and less focus on works of the past. Emerson claimed that the works of writers and philosophers could not be used as examples and frameworks as this was a form of the development of limits (Goodman 198).

Another central point within the movement is associated with the attitude towards nature. The two thinkers believed that nature was the major or rather the only source of inspiration for people’s understanding of their selves, as well as ways to live in society. At that, Emerson and Thoreau had quite different perspectives as the former had an idealistic view of nature, while the latter had a more practical approach (Sato 124). In simple terms, Emerson focused on the need to achieve “spiritual liberation” through close attention to the wonders of nature that were the manifestation of the divine (qtd. in Sato 128). Thoreau was not as concerned with allegories and the search for the supreme force. The thinker promoted the simplicity of human life or rather his ideal of living in the wild. His views on nature and his methods to support his claims made other people see him as radical and eccentric (Roy 2). Thoreau lived on his own far from the advances of technology and comfort for two years. The philosopher shared his experiences and argued that the period he lived out of the society was the time of complete harmony with nature and self.

Importantly, this is one of the points where Thoreau, Emerson’s ideas follower, went further and developed his own paradigm. Emerson praised nature as an ideal and the model to look at, but he did not promote seclusion (Sato 124). The thinker rather stressed the need to destroy all the artificial limits created by the human society. Emerson tried to bring more natural processes to the society while Thoreau tried to change the way the human society existed. Emerson concentrated on the inner world and people’s beliefs and perspectives whereas Thoreau saw other aspects as important. For him, understanding that all people were created equal and the human could not be regarded as the master of natural resources was not enough. Thoreau dreamed of the society where people could be as close to nature as possible.

It is necessary to consider the way the thinkers contributed to the American individualism. As has been mentioned above, Emerson emphasized that the individual’s potential was limitless, which also meant that people had to be self-reliant when it came to their opinions, beliefs, and actions (Goodman 198). Thoreau was more radical, and he tried to prove that every individual could live a secluded life and achieve the greatest level of self-reliance and enlightenment. At that, the two thinkers encouraged and inspired people to explore their selves as well as their creativity.

It is important to add that both thinkers stressed the need to act rather than merely contemplate. Emerson’s point concerning the limitless potential of the individual is the basis for this focus on actions. Thoreau put it in simple terms and stated that people had to try hard to understand what their ideal world could be. The next step had to be trying hard to make the ideal world merge with the real one (Roy 2). The thinker’s experiment can be regarded as one of the ways the philosopher used to promote his ideas. Clearly, he developed a particular image of an ideal world for himself and made his ideal the reality he lived in.

In conclusion, it is possible to note that Emerson and Thoreau were two significant figures within transcendentalism who developed a specific framework for the movement. Emerson and Thoreau (who was one of Emerson’s followers) had similar views on many issues, but they had quite different perspectives on some aspects. It is noteworthy that Thoreau was more radical and practical while Emerson paid more attention to the theoretical aspect. The two thinkers believed that the individual had the limitless potential that could be realized if more natural processes replaced the ways that existed in the American society of that time. It is possible to state that Emerson and Thoreau contributed greatly to the development of the American individualism and the need to act and create. In other words, the two thinkers managed to shape the society and contribute to the development of the unique nation.

Works Cited

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy Before Pragmatism. OUP Oxford, 2015.

Roy, Amitabh. “Transcendentalism and Thoreau: A Critical Reading of Walden.” Indian Journal of Applied Research, vol. 5, no. 9, 2015, pp. 1-2.

Sato, Maki. “The Implications of Aesthetic Appreciations of Nature: Comparison of Emerson and Thoreau.” Pacific and American Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 2015, pp. 123-142.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Transcendentalism: Ralph Emerson vs Henry Thoreau'. 5 September.

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