Ralph Waldo Emerson published his work Nature (1836), where he declared that a person could go beyond the materialistic and superficial world of experience and sense and become aware of the universe’s spirit, and that by it is only through introspection that one can find God. This essay sparked the beginnings of Transcendentalism. However, it is his essay, “Self-Reliance” (1841), that exposed his views on the essence of individualism and the ills of collective thinking. Emerson’s compatriot, Henry David Thoreau, being of restless nature, lived on Walden Pond, a lake near Concord, where he wrote Walden (1854).
Soon after, after spending a night in jail because of his protestations of the Mexican-American war, Thoreau was urged to write his famous essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849). In Thoreau’s later years, he established himself as a dedicated abolitionist, and a foremost writer and lecturer against slavery (www. americanwriters. org). 19th century America spawned a unique breed of thinkers that looked unto themselves and their countrymen as the stalwarts of progress and modernity, largely because of their individualism.
These thinkers also forged on to declare that Americans should even be more individualistic, to focus more on their specific ideals, notwithstanding those of the group. “Self-Reliance” was perhaps the best example of this guiding principle, as it is a clear criticism of how people fail to define, maintain and live their own standards and ideals—at a time when moralists preached complete obedience and deference to authority. The defining element behind Emerson’s philosophy lies in the Thinking Actor, the embodiment of a person’s capability to be intellectually self-reliant, that can let him go beyond what his predecessors may have reached.
Thoreau, on the other hand, being a self-proclaimed poet of nature, has defined individualism as being self-sufficient in the midst of a burgeoning materialistic world. Walden was his testimony to his life among the trees and other parts of nature; his goal was to live a Spartan life—only the bare essentials—and see if he could learn what this kind of life had to teach. Thoreau’s motto had always been about simplifying everything, which translated to his own life, in practical terms.
He limited his possessions, his expenses, and, when he made the life-changing move to live alone in a hut along Walden Pond, he also cut off his contact with people. It was this environment that made his individualism whole; in its purest, most basic sense. But events that came to happen later modified Thoreau’s concept of individualism. By refusing to pay his poll ax in protest of slavery as well as the war against Mexico, he was imprisoned, and was only released a day later. Here, Thoreau completed his new statement, which pronounced a private and personal conscience as being more credible and acceptable than civil authority.
As he proclaimed in “Civil Disobedience”, in a place where a government utilizes no justice to imprison its constituents, the real place for a fair man is, in truth, also a prison (The Common Text, 2004). He has also said that only those with unquestionable awareness and integrity may be able to effect a better life for society as a whole—completely unlike the situation of his time, where wealth that came from the collective group is only disseminated to a few privileged individuals (Brown).
Thus, perhaps the more relevant point of discussion would not be individualism, in a general sense, but transcendentalism, to be more specific, and to efficiently address the actual movements both Emerson and Thoreau were in during their time. Transcendentalism was a major presence in both literature and philosophy, a school of thought that originated from the need for change in the Unitarian church It stemmed from the contention of the significance of intuitive and personal thought, that the Unitarians claimed to be what unites the world and God, and the presence of God in the world.
On the other hand, the Transcendentalists were of the stand that every soul holds its unique identity with the world, thus it has in it exactly what the world has (American Transcendentalism). Therefore, both Emerson and Thoreau’s bodies of work clearly point to this thinking—that thought, as created by an individual, contains more power and authority than when it is but part of a group. It is capable of creativity and creation, as Emerson preached, and it would survive all on its own, like Thoreau’s experience.
Transcendentalism is all about the continuous openness of the mind, to comprehend, accept and apply even spiritual doctrine—which is tantamount to inspiration, and is, in reality, the depth of thought. However, as Emerson explained in his essay “The Transcendentalist” (1842), transcendentalism is a theory that cannot be perfectly put in practice. That a true and pure transcendentalist has yet to exist; because none have been successful at depended entirely one one’s own character, and trusted just one’s own sentiments (The Literature Network).
There has been no one in history who can prove to have existed as such—which thus brings to the conclusion that transcendentalism is in actuality a demonstration of excessive faith, an epitome of spirituality that, admittedly, is a level mere individuals would aspire to achieve.
“Emerson and Thoreau: Nature and Walden”. http://www. americanwriters. org/writers/emerson. asp The Common Text. “Walden by Henry David Thoreau”. 2004. http://www. alumni. uchicago. edu/commontext/walden/biography. shtml Brown, Cornelius.“Henry David Thoreau’s Walden”. http://www. oup. com/us/pdf/americanlit/thoreauswalden. pdf “American Transcendentalism”. http://www. wsu. edu/~campbelld/amlit/amtrans. htm “Defining Transcendentalism”. http://www. transcendentalists. com/terminology. html The Literature Network. “Emerson: Self-Reliance”, “Emerson: The Transcendentalist”, and “Thoreau” Civil Disobedience”. www. online-literature. com Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau. New York: The Modern Library, 1937.