Existence of Transcendentalism in the Works of Thoreau and Emerson

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Transcendentalism Critical Synthesis

Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson are names that are often linked to powerful writing. The writing of Thoreau and Emerson often revolved around transcendentalism which was a progressive social movement in the early 1800’s. The common theme of transcendentalist writing is self-reliance. Thoreau displays this theme in Life in the Woods, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, and Emerson in his essay Self-Reliance, and another transcendentalist thinker Margaret Fuller uses it in her essay The Great Lawsuit.

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Life in the Woods is an exact example of being self-reliant. Thoreau lived in the woods of his mentor Emerson. While at this outpost he is able to live off the land and not rely on others too much. Thoreau did this to get as he calls it “the marrow of life”. Chapter three specifically chronicles where he lived and how he lived which happens to be the title he gives the chapter. It is interesting to digest the self-reliance perspective that was considered progressive. In today’s political realm self-reliance could be classified as a conservative political ideal of small government or laissez faire. Often conservatives in today’s world seem to like the old which clashes with the idea of being progressive.

In On the Duty of Civil Disobedience Thoreau says that it is the duty of the people to not allow the government to take over what they are thinking and to ultimately force the people into things that they do not want. This falls in line with the self-reliance theme that citizens don’t need a government to essentially think for them. Thoreau goes on to explain that the government is corrupt and this is why the people should reject it as it hurts more than it helps. While calling into question the ethics of politicians who allowed slavery to exist, it seems a tad off to believe that politicians are simply interested in commerce. It does not take a political scientist to predict that attempting to remove a region’s workforce that they can do wish as they please, would cause conflict. It was wrong nonetheless of the Massachusetts and other politicians to do nothing to abolish slavery but it seems highly unlikely that the institution of slavery was allowed to exist because the entire government was corrupt. This document has been used by great humanitarians such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, but it seems as if this could also be used by rebel groups simply trying to force their conscience on others. This would contradict the message of Thoreau wanting people to maintain their conscience.

Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance is entirely about how individuals should be self-reliant and why they should be. This essay is similar to On the Duty of Civil Disobedience as it covers thinking for one’s self. An individual’s thoughts and not letting them be suppressed by society is a key part of being self-reliant. It is interesting when Emerson chronicles how religion can aid in being self-reliant. While he does not say it is required, it seems that if a society was reliant on a god then they would not be self-reliant at all. Physiologically the individuals may be self-reliant but from a conscience perspective religion would consume them and prevent them from being self-reliant.

Fuller’s The Great Lawsuit follows the enlightenment of the conscience and women’s rights. Instead of using the term self-reliant, she uses the word enlightenment. This is similar to On the Duty of Civil Disobedience when it outlines the differences between men and women. These differences would cause the consciences to be different. The ideas are similar in that the way that Thoreau did not want people to be controlled by the government, Fuller does not want women to be controlled by men.

Transcendentalism was a way of thinking that was not on par with the societal norm. It produced numerous writings but transcendentalist thinkers. These thinkers included Thoreau, Emerson, and Fuller.

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