The Transcendentalist View of Nature in Emerson and Thoreau
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Transcendentalism was a significant literary as well as philosophical movement in New England from 1836 to 1860. This new development portrays the belief that humans can intuitively transcend the boundaries of the senses and logic and receive higher truth directly from nature. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two writers who believed in exploring the spiritual meaning throughout the physical universe. They were influential in the furthering of the movement by creating such essays as “Nature” by Emerson and “Walking” by Thoreau. The two works being published together is what allows many to understand the transcendental prospective, while still respecting the slightly different views on nature of the two writers.
Emerson’s essay forms an abstract view on nature, that nature is anything outside that the writer can describe. But then Thoreau’s definition has a more concrete and practical approach, that nature is the landscape he can always walk into. Throughout “Walking”, Thoreau speaks of “sauntering” (Thoreau p.71) as walking without destination. He believes that in order to appreciate nature for what it is, one cannot follow any kind of path, or follow any road, but he must wander and unify diverse terrain. In the beginning of his essay he says that, “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”(Thoreau p.72) This proves Thoreau’s idea that you cannot just look at nature, you must go out and experience it. This contrasts the writing of Emerson because he writes as if he were reflecting upon an experience, as opposed to taking a reader step by step through the woods as Thoreau does.
In the beginning of his essay Emerson says, “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for the many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile” (Emerson p.6) Emerson insists that we witness the spectacle displayed continuously around us. But Thoreau believes that you must go and experience nature first hand and not only with your eyes but with all your senses.
It is human nature to pick a role model, someone to look up to, someone whose actions or words give comfort and guidance throughout life. In most cases, both mentor and mentee have similar views and philosophies about living life. Most philosophers think that a role model has to be a famous actor or musician, but not for Henry David Thoreau, a writer and philosopher. Thoreau’s mentor was by far more interesting than any actor or musician could ever be. The role model of Thoreau was a man by the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson, also a writer and philosopher and “one of the most influential of American thinkers, yet he had no elaborate, formal system of thought and he never attempted to create one” (Emerson 569). Thoreau, in fact, is known as Emerson’s disciple because he proved many of Emerson’s theories. These two men have many of the same beliefs but the aspects of their writing are much different.
“For Thoreau, as well as Emerson, self-reliance and independence of mind ranked above all” (Thoreau 583). The writings of both Emerson and Thoreau thrive on the theories of the transcendentalism philosophical movement, the theories of science and reason. If their writings were to be dissected down to the theme, self-reliance and independence would be found in both. Thoreau agreed with many of Emerson’s ideas which played a big role in the similarities of their themes and philosophies in their writings. Their thoughts on government were that no one should have to deal with officials with higher power than themselves; instead they should live as one within nature.
Thoreau and Emerson crossed passed many times throughout their lives. They were both living at the same time for forty-five years. Thoreau lived for more than a year in Emerson’s house, doing chores and serving as a general handyman, and most important of all, absorbing many of the older man’s ideas. Thoreau living with Emerson played a significant part in Thoreau’s writings and many were based upon Emerson’s teachings. Thoreau was fourteen years younger than Emerson and they both wrote in different times in their lives. Thoreau’s writing was done more in his youthful years and his writings and actions were more rebellious especially against the government. Thoreau does more elucidation of his considerations for living separately from society and dedicating himself to an undemanding standard of living and to the observation of nature. His style of writing initially appears simple and straight, but his use of figurative language forces the reader into a reevaluation of life.
Emerson, however, uses more poetic diction and he presents his ideas more eloquently than Thoreau. The style differentiating may be due to the fact that Emerson was older than Thoreau when he wrote and had more experience in writing. Emerson was emerged into religion early on in his life while Thoreau was not. Emerson acknowledges limitations of real life and places less emphasis on the self. Emerson and Thoreau may be similar in the theme of their writings, but the way they present and convey their themes are different. Many of the individualists of the Millennium era use the logic that Emerson and Thoreau did. Those who rebel against the established orders of society may be more connected to Henry David Thoreau’s writings and philosophies. (Sattelmeyer, 26-27) Modern philosophers would not agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson because they tend to believe that truth may be reasoned while Emerson thought that great truths come by intuition. (Wilson, 87) Emerson and Thoreau’s idea of science and reasoning being connected is used today with many mathematical and scientific equations and problem solving. Some of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s philosophies are emerging and some have emerged already, but many theories have yet to be accepted by society. Transcendentalists endeavored to extend their ideas across the country, but failed. Their ideas were excellent, and their motives pure, but people could not live up to the expectations of a transcendentalist society.
Although transcendentalism remained a dream, many ideas transcendentalists upheld are still induced into our society. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two transcendentalist philosophers who composed a lot of the ideas and ethics regarding observation of Nature. For example, Emerson said, “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.” (p. 335) This quote inspires one to use the talents they have to the best of their ability; to use what they were given, whether it is intelligence, physical strength, or humor to build the world a superior place. Along the same lines, he states, “This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it,” (Emerson, 98) telling us to not sit back and let things happen, but to rise to the occasion and use your talents to improve. We were not put on this earth to merely laze around and eat up resources; we’re all here for a reason – to add to the world and make it better little by little. Emerson did not live in a dream world, though. He knew that mankind becomes easily tempted, frustrated, and gives up. To those in trouble, he sends out messages like, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” (Emerson, p.334)
Both Emerson and Thoreau touched upon many widely accepted truths we can find today in society. Although many people do not act out on some of these theories; such as empathy, compassion, understanding, leadership, change, hard work, or self-sufficiency; most realize that through these ethics one shall obtain a life of peace and happiness. (Osipova, 194) Unfortunately, because man shifts so easily into temptation and laziness, a society, or utopia, like this shall never exist. Emerson and Thoreau did not expect perfection; but rather improvement. Even mistakes can at times be perfect. (Leer, 102)
Nature is glorified and represents all that is good in life. Thoreau believes that man uses the reliance on nature as a source of inspiration. He presents this by moving into the woods near Walden Pond and only relying on his farming skills and nature of survival. Also, Thoreau believes that nature and all creations, such as humans, animals, plants, and so on, are connected through what is known as an over soul. Nature is a huge part of a person’s life. He also comments on how people are too materialistic to realize that simple is the way to live. Thoreau explains that living in nature and in simplicity brings complete happiness in a person’s life. (Startsev, 230) Also, Walden Pond is almost a God like creation in Walden; this represents the godliness in nature. The idea of transcendentalism represents the belief that through nature one can find their inner self. Once a person has found their inner self then they have also found the Spiritual reality. (Samokhvalov, 162) Transcendentalism includes the belief that nature is an essential detail in a person’s life.
For Emerson, nature is above all a means to human enlightenment. He believes that, “once a person has become attuned to the underlying spiritual realities, the world’s purpose is served and it becomes transparent” (Emerson p.xi). Although Thoreau is a walker, as apposed to a gazer, his essay also reveals a passion for enlightenment and the higher truth. And both believe that the only way to find this is to transcend the limits of the senses and logic, and receive it directly from nature. Both authors have the belief in intuitive idealism, where we can recognize in ourselves if we have a relationship with nature. And that is what the main point of the two essays is, they are both attempts to make people realize that nature is something that need to be recognized and appreciated for its beauty. And if we all do this we will become better people. This is what influenced many of the greatest writers of all time and what made nature writing what it is today.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo: Nature and Selected Essays, Penguin Classics (May 27, 2003)
Leer, Van D., Emerson’s Epistemology: The Argument of the Essays (Cambridge, 1986) 102.
Osipova, E., Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Henry David Thoreau/ The History of the Literature of the USA, Vol. 2 (Moscow: Naslediye Publishers, 1999) 182-304.
Samokhvalov, N.I., Transcendentalism/History of American Literature Vol. 1 (Moscow: Prosveschenie Publishers, 1971) 162.
Sattelmeyer, Robert Thoreau’s Reading: A Study in Intellectual History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1988) 26-27.
Startsev, A.I., Henry Thoreau and his “Walden”/Thoreau H. Walden, or Life in the Woods (Moscow, 1962) 230.
Thoreau, Henry David: Walking (Little Books of Wisdom) Harper One; 1st Ed edition (June 18, 1994)
Wilson, Eric Emerson’s Sublime Science (London and New York: Macmillan/St. Martin’s, 1999) 76-97.