Bob Schwartz

Tag: Henry David Thoreau

Emerson and Thoreau: Make America Transcendentalist Again

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) are the most famous members of the mid-nineteenth century intellectual movement known as American Transcendentalism. Few read Emerson or Thoreau these days, unless it is a class requirement, and even then it is doubtful that much attention is paid. (Maybe the hip-hop Hamilton treatment would help.)

We have a crying need to know these American thinkers. In their time, the promise of America was being compromised. Some Americans were tired of being preached at by overzealous, narrow-minded and hypocritical religionists. Some were not being sufficiently nourished by the current culture. Some seemed to be following each other or the latest trend like sheep. Times like these are times like those. So a look back and revival of Emerson and Thoreau might not be a bad idea.


Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind….

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance


Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office—to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar


I observe that in our political elections, where this element, if it appears at all, can only occur in its coarsest form, we sufficiently understand its incomparable rate. The people know that they need in their representative much more than talent, namely the power to make his talent trusted. They cannot come at their ends by sending to Congress a learned, acute and fluent speaker, if he be not one who, before he was appointed by the people to represent them, was appointed by Almighty God to stand for a fact—invincibly persuaded of that fact in himself—so that the most confident and the most violent persons learn that here is resistance on which both impudence and terror are wasted, namely faith in a fact. The men who carry their points do not need to inquire of their constituents what they should say, but are themselves the country which they represent; nowhere are its emotions or opinions so instant and true as in them; nowhere so pure from a selfish infusion….

A healthy soul stands united with the Just and the True, as the magnet arranges itself with the pole; so that he stands to all beholders like a transparent object betwixt them and the sun, and whoso journeys towards the sun, journeys towards that person. He is thus the medium of the highest influence to all who are not on the same level. Thus men of character are the conscience of the society to which they belong.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Character


Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify….

The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way, are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to Heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us….

Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, “What’s the news?” as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half-hour, doubtless for no other purpose; and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed. After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe,”—and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself….

Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime. By closing the eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit everywhere, which still is built on purely illusory foundations.

Henry David Thoreau, Where I Lived and What I Lived For

Thoreau: Life Without Principle

thoreau

Please read a little Henry David Thoreau if you have the chance. Maybe no American writer has made a plainer case for living a life of truth, a life of principle, a life that matters.

You may know of his most famous works.

There is Walden, about his choosing to live for a time in the woods, within nature and by himself (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”) There is Civil Disobedience, about determining how, when and why defying the powers that be is a conscientious imperative.

There is much more Thoreau beyond these (see Walden and Other Writings). Following are some brief excerpts from Life Without Principle, published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863.


In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while…. [Note: If you substitute “greatest number of followers” for “greatest number of letters”, you will see just how timely and relevant this is today.]

I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,—to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself….

Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not….

We may well be ashamed to tell what things we have read or heard in our day. I do not know why my news should be so trivial,—considering what one’s dreams and expectations are, why the developments should be so paltry. The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius. It is the stalest repetition….

Really to see the sun rise or go down every day, so to relate ourselves to a universal fact, would preserve us sane forever. Nations! What are nations? Tartars, and Huns, and Chinamen! Like insects, they swarm. The historian strives in vain to make them memorable. It is for want of a man that there are so many men. It is individuals that populate the world….

It requires more than a day’s devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.

Reviving Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is time to bring Emerson back from the dead and ignored.

Up until the late 20th century, at least one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays—usually the one titled Self-Reliance—was a staple of many high school curricula. So was the work of his fellow 19th century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau—though it was mostly Thoreau’s nature paean Walden, rather than On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Maybe they are still there, but with our changing definition of what constitutes an American liberal arts education—if we consider that worthwhile at all—they have likely disappeared.

In the middle of the 19th century, the philosophical/political/religious/social/literary movement known as Transcendentalism gave birth to new ways of thinking and acting in America. Among the many intellectuals and activists associated with it, such as Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, none was more famous or prolific than Emerson. Transcendentalism gave new legitimacy to questioning the authority of convention and history. In the 1960s we would call this counterculture, and it is no coincidence that Thoreau became a guiding light to many in that generation.

Books and essays by the hundreds are devoted to Transcendentalism (see this entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). They agree that pinning down exactly what Transcendentalism was and what it became over the years is a challenge. The same is said about Emerson, who unapologetically might contradict himself or change particular views over time.

With all that fluidity and vagueness, a few points of it are clear. According to Transcendentalism, we are driven to improve and grow, to aspire and rise higher. What drives us there is spiritual, but not in any conventional, narrow or simplistic sense. What we do is as important as what we believe and say. We must act, believe and speak as individuals, but knowing the nature of our particular individuality requires work and solitude. This life, this world, this existence are all-encompassing processes and not things—a concept that would later be refined as  a core of modern philosophy, but that had its origins in the most ancient roots.

All of the work of the Transcendentalists is in the public domain and widely available free online. Though more people are familiar with Thoreau, or at least some of his concepts, Emerson is a good place to start. In his Essays (First Series) you will find Self-Reliance. In it you will find what we might consider a libertarian distrust of the crowd and of the government, something shared with Thoreau. But this is an enlightened sort of selfness, different than modern mutations, because it makes no distinction between the one and the all, that is, if I do what is good for me but is not good for all, it is by definition no good at all. Figuring out how that exactly works is the mission of the Buddha, of Jesus, of just about every philosopher who urges us to find our unique self and act in the benevolent context of community, country and cosmos. Emerson was one of the first to say this in American, as an American, in America. Maybe he got lost in the rush to the shiny and new, but he’s still there, just waiting to be discovered.