Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American lecturer and poet who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century and was a proponent of individualism and critic of societal pressures. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was also an American poet, but also an abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, historian and part of the Transcendentalist movement. To understand both of these men and their ideas, it is first necessary to place them in context with the historical and cultural aspects of America from 1820 on. The United States was moving from a climate of revolutionary fervor and realization of the vast task of self-rule, through a Jeffersonian period in which much of the political and social power gravitated from the northern capitals to the larger, rural estates of the Mid-Atlantic and Southern Regions. Jackson epitomized the idea of a land-baron; wealthy, intelligent, politically astute, patriotic, and ever expansionist. However, for the common person, this was an area of dualism -- the ever western expansion promised greater opportunity and a chance to build a new life, but the idea of settling a vast and untamed wilderness was frightening to others. Similarly, the whole economic structure of the U.S. was dichotomous as well. On one hand we had a wealthy oligarchy of rich planters whose money came from the exploitation of others (slavery). On the other hand we had a capitalist class with visions on vast western lands, transportation networks, and the exportation of natural resources. Some see the era as a slow transition of power from the upper echelons of former British intellectuals (the Founding Fathers) to a more populist culture. Add to this was the burgeoning power of the Federalist system -- and the resultant disagreements about slavery, State's rights, and the individual within society.
The Transcendentalist Movement developed out of this struggle, particularly in the 1830s and 1840s. The philosophical template for the movement protested the general state of culture and society, and the direction of intellectual thought, led by Harvard University. Transcendentalism embraced the basic goodness of humanity and nature, finding organized religion and political parties corrupted and anti-individualist. Both Emerson and Thoreau themed many of their works with the idea the community was possible only through true individualism and bonding with nature, specifically in relation to overt taxation and control by the government.
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.… where the State places those who are not with her, but against her, -- the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible (Thoreau, 1849, p. 10).
Emerson's Self-Reliance is probably the most focused and coherent statement of the Transcendental movement. The basic premise is to ensure that the individual avoids both conformity and false consistency by following one's own heart and desires; "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines" (Emerson, 2007, p. 23).
Emerson lets us know that each individual is capable of great things and that those individuals in the past, he mentions Moses, Plato, and Milton, all believed in their own genius enough to self-actualize to the point of greatness.
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us… (Emerson, p. 13).
In this, Emerson is giving advice to all individuals, certainly to Thoreau and others who have the conviction and sense of purpose to express their individuality in prose, and the courage to write thoughts that may or may not be popular for the time period, or the general audience. We must also remember that the great American experiment -- democracy, had not yet been proven. When Thoreau and Emerson were writing, the republic was less than a century old, a major incursion into American soil by the British just happened in 1812, and there was already talk of the South seceding from the union. Thoreau is not only writing about individuality, but that governments are typically more harmful than helpful to the lives of the individual. Even democracy, America's contribution to the experiment of government, Thoreau says, is not a cure for this ill, as the majority is not necessarily wise and just based on the fact that they are the majority.
It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time, what I think is right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience, but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just… (Thoreau, p. 3).
This I not to say that Thoreau or Emerson believed in total anarchy. The idea is that intelligent individuals, by there very nature, will use their intelligence to make informed decision. This was similar to the Greek idea of the polis, and certainly Plato's idea of The Republic. Democracy, for Plato, was not the highest form of government because of the very notion Thoreau posits -- the mob (the majority) may not even understand the issues; but it is the intelligent individual that has ensured they are informed and self-educated that can make the best decision, and certainly that individual has the acumen to speak the truth -- internally and externally -- "How much truth is stronger than error… and how much more eloquently and effectively [one] can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person" (Thoreau, p. 11).
Similarly, Emerson would tell Thoreau that indeed, the concept of the individual provides a way to see the nature of meaning:
And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid…. When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; & #8230;.. The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself with known that all things go well. (Emerson, p. 33).
For Emerson, the idea is that society has negative effects upon the individual. When a person is unduly influenced they will compromise their own values over and over again in order glean approval from the mob. When this is done as a pattern, over and over again, then the self subsumes itself to society and all semblance of creativity and worth are gone. Emerson would likely laud Thoreau for his courage and conviction to speak his mind:
The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past actor word….with consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again; thought it contradict everything you say today. 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood -- Is it so bad? To be great is to be misunderstood (Emerson, p. 24).
Thus, for Emerson, there are few absolutes other than the path towards actualization. This means that the true individual can have differing opinions depending on the impetus and information one has. In this sense, the individual mind is the relationship between an event (cause) and another event (the effect) by assuming that the second event is a cause of the first. "The man must be so much that he must make all circumstances indifferent. Every true man is a cause…" (Emerson, p. 27). For Thoreau, it is more that external society places pressure upon the individual, but "associations formed elsewhere, springing for a feeling of humanity, or any other cause, have nothing whatever to do with it" (Thoreau, p. 19).
Even more adamantly, Thoreau tells us that governments are not natural, are not an act of God,…
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