Walden and Transcendentalism

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WALDEN AND TRANSCENDENTALISM

Henry Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden or a Life in the Woods, shows the impact transcendentalism had on Thoreau’s worldview. Transcendentalism is a philosophy that asserts the primacy of the spiritual over the material. Transcendentalism puts the emphasis on spiritual growth and understanding as opposed to worldly pleasures. Thoreau’s idea of transcendentalism stressed the importance of nature and being close to nature. He believed that nature was a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. A walk in the woods therefore was a search for spiritual enlightenment. One should look ‘through’ nature, not merely ‘at’ her. In Walden, Thoreau’s idea of transcendentalism is broken into three areas. The first is the importance of the spiritual world as opposed to material wants. He accentuates this idea by explaining how the physical world only exists so that souls can experience life to the fullest. Thoreau speaks a great deal about physical property in the first chapter, entitled “Economy”. He keeps a detailed record of the economic cost of his venture into the woods and explains to his readers his pity for the people who have numerous material possessions. Thoreau states, “When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all…I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry.”[1] The second transcendentalism theme is the idea of individuality- the idea that an individual is unique and should act according to his personality and ideals. Individuality is a basic idea of the transcendentalists and they firmly believed that one should search for ‘self-discovery’. Thoreau observed, “Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead.”[2] He emphasized the “style” as an individual style, one that was distinctive to each person. He even told his readers in Walden...
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