Self Reliant of Emerson

Topics: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalism Pages: 15 (5806 words) Published: January 29, 2013
0. Introduction
The question of the relation between the individual and society is one of the most central questions in the literature of American Transcendentalism. Most of Ralph W. Emerson's Essays deal with it as well as the work of Henry D. Thoreau. Margaret Fullers 'feminist Transcendentalism' propagated emancipation of women from social norms, and George Ripley tried to develop an alternative to society in 'Brook Farm', a social experiment that aimed at giving the individual more freedom in a farm community. The aim of this paper is to uncover the idea behind all these literary and real-life attempts to define the role of the individual within or without society. The key term for this is self-reliance, which basically means idealistic individualism. The paper tries to explain self-reliance as a concept within the broader framework of American Transcendentalist thought. Moreover, I will try to demonstrate where the idea of self-reliance can be found in the work of Henry David Thoreau and how it shapes the relation individual-society therein. The paper is structured as follows: Chapter One is an attempt to define American Transcendentalism as a movement that was deeply individualistic and as a system of ideas which are connected with the idea of individualism. Chapter Two examines the doctrine of self-reliance itself. This is mainly done by examining the essay Self-Reliance by Emerson. Chapter Three asks if the doctrine of self-reliance is reflected in American Transcendental literature. As examples, I chose Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. I want to argue that self-reliance has two possible implications, Solitude or Social Commitment, and that both of them can be found in Thoreau's work. Finally, Chapter Four summarises and analyzes the content of the previous chapters. When quoting German texts I decided not to translate them in order to avoid a distortion of their content.1. American Transcendentalism 1.1 An Individualistic Movement American Transcendentalism was a philosophical, literary, and religious movement. It was intellectually most productive between the 1830s and the 1850s. The central events in the history of American Transcendentalism took place in these decades: In 1832, Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned his ministry of the Unitarian Church because he felt unable to administer the holy communion. A group of New England intellectuals, called the 'Transcendental Club', met occasionally at Emerson's house from 1836 on. The most influential transcendentalist literature was published in that time: Emerson's Nature, Orestes Brownson's New Views of Christianity, Society, and Church(both 1836), Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience(1849) and Walden, or Life in the Woods(1854), and the magazine The Dial(1840 to 1844) which was edited by Margaret Fuller. For the estimation of the extreme individualism and self-reliance most of the Transcendentalists1favoured, it is important to understand that at their time they were outsiders among intellectuals. While the mainstream of philosophical thought in early nineteenth-century New England was influenced by John Locke's empiricism, their philosophy had its roots in German idealism, in Eastern thought, and in Scottish Common Sense Philosophy. The Transcendentalists intended to produce literature that was original American, criticized the American society in their writings, and did not care about formal standards. Therefore, they were in opposition to the established literature, like that of the 'Fireside Poets', which was Victorian, oriented only on aesthetic standards, and very formalistic. Also concerning religion the Transcendentalists were opposed to the beliefs of the majority. With their rather pantheistic religious views they confronted the Unitarian church. The religious and anti-Unitarian element of Transcendentalism was known as the 'New Views'; they lead to a controversy between Ralph W. Emerson and the Unitarian Church of Boston after he had...
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