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Individualism in Emerson and Thoreau

Uploaded by semihatopal on Jun 24, 2002

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are considered two of the most influential and inspiring transcendentalist writers of their time. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a lecturer, essayist, and poet, was born on May 25, 1803, and is generally considered the father of American transcendentalism , “a philosophy that rejects the idea that knowledge can be fully derived from experience and observation; rather, truth resides in the spiritual world.” Henry David Thoreau is his student, who was also a great essayist and critics.Both men extensively studied and embraced nature, and both men encouraged and practiced individualism and nonconformity.

In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance” and Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government (“Civil Disobedience”), both transcendentalist thinkers speak about being individual and what reforms and changes need to be made in society.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and his disciple, Henry David Thoreau, who were individualists, attacked the dominant religious, political, and cultural values of American society in order to make people aware that they are more important than everything, including government and society. According to Emerson, society is a barrier against the individuality of its members; and he continued:

Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity.

The solution, for Emerson, is self-reliance, meaning that man is only responsible for his own life and he shouldn’t be too enveloped in society, which is one of the main principles of Transcendentalism. The other principle is individualism, which was expressed in Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”:

I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.

And in “Self Reliance” by Emerson: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -- that is genius.”

Thoreau was Emerson’s student, he stayed with him for a while and was affected by his ideas, especially concerning with individual and society. Emerson’s idea that in society the heart and power of man is drawn out and ignored, which makes people afraid of expressing their own ideas as well as...

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Uploaded by:   semihatopal

Date:   06/24/2002

Category:   Literature

Length:   10 pages (2,302 words)

Views:   3054

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