Transcendentalism in Civil Disobedience

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Dannheisig 1 Jan-Hendrik Dannheisig Susanne Hamscha, M.A. Re(dis)covering America: Emerson, Thoreau, and American Democracy 10 April 2012

Transcendentalism in "Civil Disobedience" Thoreau's Politics of Individuality and Nature

Dannheisig 2

Contents Introduction 1. Transcendentalism a. Nature b. Introspective Conscience and Politics 2. Political Individualism a. Ethical and Political (In)justice b. Critique of Democracy Conclusion Bibliography

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Dannheisig 3 Introduction Henry David Thoreau was part of a movement called American Transcendentalism. To illuminate Thoreau's understanding of democracy, political action and justice this paper will focus on the influence transcendentalism had on his ideas and ideals in his essay "Resistance to Civil Government" better known as "Civil Disobedience." Mostly found in his naturalist writings like Walden, The Maine Woods or his journals, Thoreau's transcendental influences shape his political writings just as much. In Thoreau's thinking there is an underlying dichotomy between nature and artificial social constructs, like governments or churches. This dichotomy is the basis for his distrust in majority rule and mindless compliance with laws by the public. Thoreau focuses on an individualized responsibility for one's actions by declaring only introspectively found truths a sufficient basis for one's conscience and therefore one's actions. This is where transcendentalism is found in his argumentation. The transcendental approach to all of reality is through introspection, finding knowledge and truth in ourselves instead of in empirical experience or law. Thoreau incorporates this idea of introspective conscience into a framework of political realities, like slavery in the United States at the time or the Mexican-American War. This application of a highly philosophical understanding of reality onto complex political problems during the time is the reason "Civil Disobedience" received so much attention. Thoreau makes the case for more individual reflection and his stances are strongly critical of majority rule. He questions the legitimacy of governments that create unjust laws, acceptance of slavery being the prime example of injustice. He believed that humans are innately good and that only society, with its artificial social constructs, corrupts them. In the following chapters I will show how transcendental influence is the underlying for all his politically crass positions and analyze their implications.

Dannheisig 4 1. Transcendentalism Transcendentalism is a philosophy of individualism and individualism is the ground of American thought.1 The New England movement of American Transcendentalism, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, arose in the 1830s and 1840s, as a response to cultural and societal developments towards materialism and intellectualism. Transcendentalism can be linked to Romanticism in its disdain of rationalization of nature. Critical of industrialization both movements focus on reorientation towards the natural experience, unaltered by societal ambitions like greed or, to create norms and rules for wholesome living. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his influential essay "The Transcendentalist" in 1842: "The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it?"

Transcendentalism contrasts materialism and idealism. Losing faith in their identity many of the growing elite saw developments of brutal expansion, class stratification by means of...
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