Transcendentalism as a Literary, Social, and Philosophical Movement of the 19th Century

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Transcendentalism was a literary, social, and philosophical movement that flourished during the middle 19th century which prioritized individuals over society as man’s greatness is found in the individual, not in the group. Transcendentalists were progressive individuals who went against traditionally held beliefs and thus were critical of the government and organized religion.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two of the leading figures of Transcendentalism. “Self Reliance” by Emerson and “Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau both encouraged individualism and the importance of being true to yourself without giving in to conformity; giving into conformity makes you the same as everyone else. In Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”, a major idea is the need to be creative and original and trusting your intuition. “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide” (Emerson, 2). From the first sentence Emerson chooses strong aphorisms to help us understand that if we follow others, we are killing ourselves. The image of suicide makes us picture us killing our own unique personality at the sake of copying someone else’s work. Using parallelism, he continues his sentence by stating “that he must take himself for better, for worse” to show that a man is responsible for his own actions and building his own path, whether it be good or bad (Emerson, 2). Therefore, you should rely on yourself and your own instincts. Just like how a man can’t achieve success without working for it, 'no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till' (Emerson, 2). We can’t expect greatness to come to us; we have to use what we are given at birth to achieve that. He argues that a person must trust his intuitions to find his purpose and that “none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried” (Emerson, 2). So trust yourself to accomplish great things and don’t be discouraged because if you aim for failure you will always succeed. Not only that, he expresses that we are afraid to be judged so “we but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents” (Emerson, 2).

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That “divine idea” is given to us by God and each of us has the potential to achieve great success if only we show our unique self and individuality and not care about sticking to conformity. The only one who can gain peace and happiness is one who has “put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace” (Emerson, 2). Through this juxtaposition, we are shown the difference between a man who relied on himself and led the crowd and a man who chose to follow the crowd by giving into conformity. Similarly, Thoreau also believed in individuality and the need to question the opinion held by the majority because the majority isn’t always right. To Thoreau “voting is merely a sort of gaming like checkers and backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong” where people are gambling about their choice being right or wrong. Through the comparison, we see that the voters aren’t mainly concerned “that right should prevail” (Thoreau, 7). They are “willing to leave it to the majority” but they need to know that the majority doesn’t always have the right intentions (Thoreau, 7).

We need to fight for justice but “even voting for the right is doing nothing for it” (Thoreau, 7). Thoreau continues by using a contradictory statement to demonstrate that not only do we need to rely on our conscience, but we also have to show it through our actions not just through some simple words. We need to fight for right and wrong instead of leaving it to chance. Even if our opinions go against the beliefs of the majority, it doesn’t mean that we are wrong so don’t blindly follow the popular belief. Similar to what Emerson suggests, rely on yourself, and don’t let society discourage you from pursuing what is true for you. So, unlike a coward, “a wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority” (Thoreau, 7).

By emphasizing the difference between a weak and a wise man, Thoreau encourages people to take a stand against the government and the majority because “there is but little virtue in the action of masses of men” (Thoreau, 7). He alludes to slavery and how the only one who can end slavery is one “who asserts his own freedom by his vote” (Thoreau, 7). The only person who is able to abolition slavery is one who can realize that society should not affect you or your beliefs, but it is you who should know what is right or wrong based on your conscience. So don’t just rely on the majority to be right, rely on yourself.

Although both Emerson and Thoreau believe in trusting yourself and never conforming to set standards, they both express their viewpoints differently. Emerson relies on using a very direct tone. He is not hesitant to straightforwardly talk about the flaws of our society. By saying “envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide”, he is basically telling the readers to quit being jealous of others since nobody's perfect and by copying others, you are giving up your own identity (Emerson, 2). He evokes a sense of confidence in the readers. He never wants them to feel inferior about themselves or give up their uniqueness for the satisfaction of others. Also, he is very sure of his beliefs and says anything you do without putting your heart into, “shall give [you] no peace” which creates a threatening and ominous atmosphere. He’s simply saying that you can never be happy if you don’t truly do what your heart desires. Whereas, Thoreau focuses on being authoritative and straight to the point by using short, simple sentences unlike Emerson’s lengthy, detailed sentences. Not only that, but Thoreau also isn’t afraid to offend or mock people. He ridicules people who think that if they wait, others will simply fight for the right. He calls those who think voting for the right is making a change as those who are only “expressing to men feebly” their desire. He calls them weak and cowards for not showing their determination through their actions but only through mere words. They both successfully convey their purpose however, Thoreau was more effective as he used a more authoritative and forceful tone that makes the readers more likely to be ashamed of not agreeing with what he believes. It makes them feel guilty for doing the same things that he mentioned are worthless.

Overall, since both men were Transcendentalists they held very identical beliefs. They both despised conformity and trusting the majority to be right. They prioritized individualism and finding your own true self rather than following the popular beliefs. Remember, success and happiness come from within, not from others around you. So, rely on and trust yourself without caring about society judging you.

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