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R.W. Emerson and Transcendentalism

By mandamarie Mar 28, 2010 1356 Words
Saying Ralph Waldo Emerson is the same as saying Transcendentalism. A word not many understand, a concept seen in his convictions; not only a literary movement but a lifestyle movement and the beginning of a long term change in society.” What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism;” (Emerson, The Trancendeltalist, from Lectures, 1842)this movement allowed intellectual support and leadership to a number of social reforms that would not have been able to occur without the ideals of Emerson. Looking at Emerson’s’ Nature, Self-Reliance, and other works along with his most recognized follower Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; there are many similarities in their context that apply to life today. One of the main ideals in the literary contributions of the Transcendentalist authors of the 1830-1880’s was the idea that man is not governed by the predisposition of the Calvinist movement during that time but rather a vessel himself to be closer to god and the divine. Gone were the text like writings of the earlier American authors and a new more feeling and personal literature emerged. Emerson believed that each person held a “spark of divinity” he advocated for nature and the lessons learned from it. Both Emerson and Thoreau were influenced by nature and both opposed to the political issues of their day; Thoreau being the more vocal in regards to the political issues as read in Civil Disobedience (MCMichael, 2007). But both avid supporters in social reform in America during the 1800’s in such areas as religion, education reform, and civil rights. The Transcendental movement started by Emerson also consisted of authors such as Louisa May Alcott, Frederick Douglass, Margret Fuller, Emily Dickinson and many others that have greatly influenced not only America’s literary movement, but major changes in political and social injustices that have plagued our nation since conception. Although both authors reflect on the elements, both Nature and Walden also address the underlying ideals of spirituality, simplicity and the value of self and the soul. Thoreau’s Walden is an actual attempt to live Emerson’s ideas wrote in Nature. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” (Thoreau) This personal statement reflective of transcendentalism, is directly influenced by the works of Emerson writes “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.” Thoreau in living on Walden Woods, recounts a little over two years of living off the land; growing his own food, building his own shelter, and reflecting in nature. Thoreau has walked back to the “foregoing generations” and attempted to reconnect with nature around him thus living out the ideas expressed in his mentors, Nature. Thoreau, in doing so realized the affects of simplicity in expanding our minds and understanding of self by observing the ever-changing nature around us, how it coexists and how we can reach enlightenment. The statement “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” (Thoreau) Is an insight into the motivation of the experiment Walden. It is also reflective of Emerson “In the woods we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,-no disgrace, no calamity,(leaving me my eyes,)which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, - my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, - all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all;” (Emerson) Wherein Emerson is stating that in nature he is able to let go of the realities of the industrial world and really see into one’s self and better understand our society and culture as a whole. Emerson attempted to change the view of people to a broader more objective and simple way of looking at life. By seeing the balance and simplicity of nature; really seeing, one can see into their own soul and better live life as it should be lived. “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” (Emerson) Not only did both Emerson and Thoreau believe in the simplicity of life in an effort to keep clarity of sight and mind, but they both believed in the importance of caring for and excepting self in the individual soul. Thoreau wants to get in touch with his soul and Emerson points out the vastness of the soul and the lack of complete usage of most. Emerson also says, “The soul circumscribes all things. As I have said it contradicts all experience.” (Emerson, The Over-Soul, Essays the first series, 1841) Emerson was a philosopher and teacher in the sense that he used his education and religious beliefs in creation of an alternate way of seeing things. America has been directly changed and in my opinion for the better by the ideal of Emerson. Many past, present and future leader in the areas of education and sociological reform were inspired by the words

of Emerson and Thoreau . "There are no days in life so memorable as those which vibrated to some stroke of imagination" (Emerson) The wider impact that the ideas of Transcendentalism had on the development of America have changed and shaped our country as no other movement could. The views behind Transcendentalism include personal freedom, simplicity, dignity and value of every human life. The concept of God is not un-presented, rather excepted and added to the views that all man is responsible to live for himself to the best of himself and therefore be closer to the divine nature of self. "Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end." (Emerson) Many of the abolitionists and reformers of the 1800’s were seen as the embodiment of Transcendentalism. While others major social reformers, activists and philosophers such as Martineau Gandhi, and even Barack Obama have been influenced by Emerson and Thoreau. However no matter how great the influence and the outcome Emerson was a thinker waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with him in his beliefs. The reason he is and always will be a beacon of reason and hope to all of humanity can in a few words be reflected by his sense of divinity of self. “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”(Emerson)

Sources;
Emerson, R. W. Nature.
Emerson, R. W. (1841). The Over-Soul, Essays the first series. Emerson, R. W. (1842). The Trancendeltalist, from Lectures. Boston. MCMichael. (2007). Anthology of American Literature. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. Thoreau, H. D. Walden.

http://www.transcendentalists.com/index.htm
http://www.rwe.org/
http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/walden/

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