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Transcendentalism

By mholmes15 Feb 20, 2014 1102 Words
McKenna Holmes
Mr. Reinhardt
English III, Period 7
11 December 2013

Transcendentalism
Those who think Transcendentalism is just a literary movement that took place in the early 1800s are only half correct. Transcendentalism is indeed a literary movement; however, it is much more than that. It is meant to challenge people to think for themselves and cause change. Authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee taught the importance of non-conformity and civil disobedience through short stories such as “Self Reliance” and “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, and the play, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Transcendentalism is based on the belief that knowledge is derived from experience and personal reflection as opposed to reason. Transcendentalism promotes self-revelation because it encourages people to form their own opinions and then voice them in a way that will promote change in society.

Transcendentalists ground their philosophy with the idea that every person's inner self is where knowledge is gained. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance”, he says, '"What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think…It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. '" Emerson realizes that it is easy to conform to society, but there is value in forming one’s own opinion. What makes a person great is if he or she can stand out in a crowd of people. While in a crowd, one can see the overall ideas of the group but never the individual thoughts that made up these ideas. Emerson is saying that to be great, one must be able to be with the crowd physically, but mentally remain one’s own person with their own ideas. Because Transcendentalism values individual opinions, it is also important to people such as Henry David Thoreau that everyone, especially the government, is open to other peoples’ opinions. In “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” Thoreau says, “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power… and treats him accordingly.” Thoreau understands that citizens should be able to influence the government and cause change. To do this, the government needs to treat its citizens with respect. Politicians and other government workers need to do away with their pride and listen to what is really important- the citizens. When people can form their own opinions, respect others’ opinions, and voice their opinions, there will be harmony.

In Transcendentalism, people are encouraged not only to form their own opinions, but to voice them as well. Thoreau tells everyone to “make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it” (Thoreau). He supports transcendentalism by encouraging people to stand up and talk about their opinions. Thoreau understands that change, especially in government can only occur when individuals make their opinions heard. During his life, Thoreau challenged the idea of slavery, government corruption, payment of taxes, and the Mexican-American War. In The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Thoreau is talking to his old professor about how he should voice his discontent with the Mexican-American War. When Thoreau’s professor asks when he should voice his opinion Thoreau yells, “‘NOW! A year ago was too late! I’ll get you an audience. This afternoon. At Concord Square!”’ (Lawrence and Lee 89). In the play, Thoreau expresses that opinions are no good if they are not proclaimed to the world. If opinions are not voiced they cannot be heard. Transcendentalism values individual opinions and acknowledges that voicing them is crucial if they are going to spearhead change in their society.

Transcendentalists agree that self-revelation is wasted if it is not voiced and then heard and thereby causing change. During The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Thoreau spends a small amount of time as a schoolteacher. While Thoreau is a schoolteacher, he gets into trouble with the schoolmaster because he lets his kids “Huckleberry” in order to come to a conclusion in a class discussion. After he gets in trouble Thoreau sarcastically tells his students, ‘“You must not listen to a cricket or smell a flower that has not been approved by the School Committee. You’d better close both ears and hold your nose- though you may have to grow an extra hand to do it”’ (Lawrence and Lee 20). In this instance, Thoreau is trying to speak out against the strict policy of the school committee. He sees that the policy is unfair and that students should be able to learn in a way that is effective for them. By speaking out against the school committee, Thoreau is opening up the possibility for a reform in the education system. Thoreau sees that there is an opportunity to promote change so he takes it and speaks his opinion. According to Thoreau and other transcendentalists, the government needs to be ameliorated. Thoreau says, “The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it” (Thoreau). Transcendentalists agree that the government usually does not work for the people it is protecting. However, they do realize that it is necessary for the survival of the United States. Thoreau is encouraging people to take a stand against the current government, which he hopes will lead to a reform that will empower people to demand more influence in politics. Transcendentalism emphasizes that individuals need to voice their opinions if change is going to occur.

According to Transcendentalists, promoting change in society occurs through self-revelation. There must be free thinking people in the world who are willing to make their voice heard if change is ever going to occur. Today many people think that the American school system is something that needs to be reformed. There is a problem if most students are no longer engaged and excited to go to school. Transcendentalists would say that students should be learning things that are interesting to them and cause them to think beyond what is being taught. Students should be encouraged to investigate and debate ideas in order to come up with their own. If America were still in the Transcendentalism time period, people would be insisting on these types of changes. They know that if they do not speak out, nothing will happen.

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