Emerson and Thoreau – Two Transcendentalist’s Transforming Thoughts
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement started in the early nineteenth century with the fundamental belief that most important reality is that aspect of reality what is sensed and what is felt intuitively. The premise was contrary to what is primarily sought through the body of scientific knowledge or the outcomes of logical working.
The idea of this new movement literally transcended us beyond the realms of rationality and subtly navigated us towards that special world of spirituality. It was not easy to embrace and comprehend this new phenomenon of transcending thoughts…
The word “transcend” is a verb meaning to go beyond and rise above, to exceed, to surpass and to be independent.
Transcendentalism is a Latin word transcendere means “climb over or beyond”. It was the movement beyond the ordinary and a movement against the scientific rationalism. True reality transcends and exists beyond the physical world which merely is a gateway to the spiritual world. It sumptuously asserted the existence of ideal spiritual reality.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Born in Boston, Massachusetts
Lived during 1803 to 1882
Educated at Boston School and Harvard College
Known as Poet, Philosopher and Essayist
Major work “Nature” and Self Reliance”
Henry David Thoreau
Born in Concord, Massachusetts
Lived during 1817-1862
Educated at Concord Academy and Harvard College
Championed Simple Living
Known as Essayist, Abolitionist and Naturalist
Major work “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience”
It was the fundamental contest between facts versus ideas.
It was about owning things and improving our life. It was about doing so with deep conviction, profoundly embracing the power of ideas and keeping away from technicality of facts. The fact that world is an independent power to the idea and that world is an embodiment of beautifully captured pictures of nature. The fact that physical space separates us from our loved ones contrary to the idea of spirituality that connects us with everyone. The fact that time brings things to a technical end because the idea of imagination takes us into an entirely different world of eternity.
This very movement was embracing the idea of beauty, subject of morality and sphere of spirituality.
Transcendentalists were deeply drawn to the beauty of ideas but they had to dive and drive their way away from the hard facts of life…it was the reality. The power of thoughts and the immense possibilities that is harbored in a thought. A simple idea can unleash a world of real power provided that we in a place to recognize the intrinsic power hidden in the realm of imagination.
It was also the academic contest between theories vs. practices.
Unlike other movement where they had conceptualized a theory and working towards building a body of practice, in the case of transcendentalist they had already had a practice but were searching for the best theory to fit the practice. It was so much like reverse engineering. It was about justifying the practice. It was about the ratification. It was an act of perhaps what we can relate to the contemporary scientific idea of reverse re-engineering.
Staging of Movement
The movement flourished during the middle of nineteenth century that is primarily between the years of 1836 to 1860.
1830s saw the establishment of the Movement
1840s saw the experiment of Walden by Thoreau
1850s saw the evaluation of American Slavery
The movement originated in the area around Concord, Massachusetts (New England) a fundamental contest of the old school of thought… the old generation and new school of thought… the new generation. The erudite and eclectic from writers to philosophers to thinkers to artists came together under the umbrella of a new belief system built on the innate goodness of humanity and powerful unity of universal creation. It was believed that humans were fundamentally good but were corrupted and manipulated by state and society for reaching their own invested goals loaded with vested interest. It was about the edge of insight has over intellect. The movement then moved to a new place and gradually gained momentum in the eastern parts of United States of America.
The commencement of this movement was a reaction to 18th century rationalism. Emerson and Thoreau were the two famous American philosopher, essayist and poet who led this transcendentalist movement in the 19th century. Emerson was more of visionary and not a man of action orientation where Thoreau was more practical in his disposition and a man of action.
Great men are they who see spirituality stronger than any material force, that thoughts rule the world – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined – Henry David Thoreau.
In 1836, Emerson as an essayist and naturalist published his book “Nature” crafted the cornerstone for the progress of transcendentalist philosophy. According to him God was in nature and by coming close to nature we are in turn coming close to the Almighty. His thought on transcendentalism was a belief system that espoused an unconventional appreciation of nature.
In 1945, Thoreau build a cabin in Walden Pond, the property belonged to Emerson and lived there are two years, two months and two days to be precise. He chronicled the experiences in his book tilted “Walden” published in 1954. He extensively explored the themes of nature, spirituality and simple life.
Nature helps us understand life better. It is the nature that literally nurtures our nature, we need to just recognize and acknowledge. By studying nature we can better understand and appreciate God and Self. We experience the world through our observations and experiences. Knowledge of self, in which either we embrace the world and become one or we carve our space becomes unique in this world.
The philosophy based on the doctrine of the principles of reality is to be discovered through the process of thoughts. It was the spiritual discovery over the driver of actions based on empirical data. It is a literary movement where essay writing was at the heart of writing style.
Intuition and feeling are superior to intellect and reason.
Instincts and ideas are superior to knowledge and rationality.
Individual is his or her best authority.
The three key premises on which the movement gained momentum was of individualism, idealism and divinity of nature.
The three key proponents employed by the leaders of the movement to convey the purpose namely were civil-disobedience, self-reliance and non-conformity.
Idealism and Realism
Greek philosopher Plato explained the philosophy of Idealism where he explained the concept that true reality can be discovered in ideas and not in physical world. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Transcendentalism is a rediscovery of Plato’s philosophy of Idealism and was an application of new perspective in the nineteen century.
According to Kant, there is a just law within people that shapes their impressions and the core of innate principles governs the formation of their perception of the world around. The human experiences acquired through the intuition of mind, and mind as the originator of experiences and developing newer perspectives in life. In other words it molded our outlook towards mind for being a logical and rational machine to that of an intuitive and interpreting mechanism.
Romanticism and Transcendentalism
Romanticism as movement started in Europe during the 18th century. It was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that emphasized on aesthetics experiences. It embraced art, literature and music.
Transcendentalists took the Romantic belief that wisdom is found in nature a step forward and everything in the physical world is a reflection of God. Human beings are part of the Divine Soul and they have the potential to be perfect. Transcendentalist pursued practical goals for improving human lives and designed plans and developed action plans to build a perfect society. The drive and strive for bringing about a social change.
Transcendentalism highlights the power of individualism, nature and divinity. It is on the inner spirituality and the importance of upholding nature as sanctuary. Transcendentalist believed that God is at the center of universe. Everything in this world is a reflection of God and the Divine Soul. The soul of the person is the soul of the world. According to Emerson wisdom and self-realization is the key for personal development and growth.
Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the idea of “transcendentalism” in his essay “Self-Reliance” and “The Over Soul”, and he always credited German philosopher Immanuel Kant in popularizing the term. It was primarily the philosophy of spirituality beyond the boundaries of science. He championed the abolition of Slavery and the protection of Native Americans, and crusade for peace and social justice.
Henry David Thoreau wrote the essay titled “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” and “Life without Principle” where he deliberated on people’s responsibility to slavery and unjust laws formulated and propagated by government. In these essays he vehemently argued person should allow government to silence individual conscience and make they pawns of injustice.
They both were the 19th century social reformers. It was philosophy and independence that was important to Thoreau. To study nature one needed a free and clear mind. It was nature and God that was important to Emerson. To study the harmony that existed between human beings and natural world. They were firm believer that people are born with inner sense that helped them to recognize moral truth. And this moral sense went beyond the normal and regular experiences.
It is people’s conscience that matter and if the state imposed any rule that was against the moral truth, people need to oppose those unjust rules of law. They were driven by spiritual thoughts and deeply believed in the divinity power of nature, also the value of individual and intuition.
The movement was progressive thought towards living a spiritually meaningful life in nature…
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail – Ralph Waldo Emerson
What do you speak so loud that I cannot hear what you say – Ralph Waldo Emerson
What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in what lies inside of you – Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is not what you look at that matters, it is what you see – Henry David Thoreau
The world is but a canvas to our imagination – Henry David Thoreau
Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves – Henry David Thoreau
Nihar R Pradhan