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Throughout history different segments of society have struggled for such liberties as personal freedom and eternal happiness. For centuries man has attempted to “find” himself, posing the questions “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” People tend to express themselves physically, spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally in order to promote their image, their sense of identity and individualism. During the late 1820’s and 1830’s, Transcendentalism emerged as the defining American philosophy. A movement which intertwined the study of truth, religion, and literature, stressing the value of intellectual reason as the path to divine wisdom.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden both express insights into the divinity of the human person transcending material possessions and conformist ways of thinking.
Emerson’s transcendental philosophy allowed him to experience harmony and understanding by broadening his horizons and seeing what others could not see, or even imagine. His literary masterpiece Nature explores the direct relationship between God and nature.
Emerson suggests that the presence of a divine spirit in both nature and the human soul creates a direct understanding of God as well as the perception of fundamental truths.
He describes his experience: “Standing on the bare ground-my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space-all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God” (www.jjnet.com/emerson/nature1.htm). He emphasizes that nature is a creation from God’s hands and exists to fortify human souls with the purity of immortal beauty.
Landscapes, horizons, even thunderstorms, have the potential to alter the human spirit and provide a sense of harmonious reassurance. Robert E. Spiller supports this idea by stating that Emerson feels God is revealed in “…Beauty, or the pleasure in contemplation of form and color” (10). There is a direct relationship between nature and people insofar as they both express emotions and stages of development. Moods can, as does nature, brighten and fade as they seek change and identity. The Transcendental emphasis on the unity of individual souls both with nature and with God instills dignity and significance into human endeavors. Everything found in the soul of the world can be found in the soul of the individual, moreover, contact with the truth, goodness and beauty embodied in nature originates the Over-Soul (www.cl.utoledo.edu/canaday/thortran.html). Alfred Kazin states that Emerson felt that those who “…had found God in himself was always happy, confident of his wisdom about everything that came to his attention” (52). Such an emphasis establishes a belief in the power to effect social change in harmony with God’s purposes. In Nature, Emerson proclaims that “the reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself” (www.jjnet.com/emerson/prospects.htm).
Only when people identify themselves with nature and its inherent power and beauty will they fully recognize those qualities within themselves. They will discover peace within their souls and eventually peace with one another.
Emerson’s Nature also advocates a lifestyle free of superfluous material possessions.
He explains that the natural and organic are vastly superior to manufactured products. As he states “In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.
In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature” (www.jjnet.com/emerson/nature1.htm). Emerson insists that the necessities for survival reside in nature, at no expense, in their purist form: Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this, the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulation’s of the divine charity nourish man.
(www.jjnet.com/emerson/commodity.htm) Emerson emphasizes that true wisdom and power are not contained in material possessions, but it is that which is free, accessible, and immortal that leads to divinity. Nature is God’s playground, His work of art, His place of refuge, His pervading image of perfection that he shares with His creation, humanity. He offers it to us as a gift, a sanctuary, and surely no gift should be abused or neglected. In Nature, Emerson attempts to delineate a way of life that leads to success. Devoid, perhaps, of monetary value is true wealth is derived from the roots; the roots of nature’s soil, the roots of God, and the roots of the individual. No amount of money could ever surpass the richness of the trees, the sun, or even the rocks, because it is those elements of which have been touched by God.
Henry David Thoreau posits very similar convictions in his literary masterpiece Walden. He emphasizes the importance of individuality and a complete rejection of conformity. J. Lyndon Shanley comments that “…he kept repeating in public and in private, by act and by word, that he was his own man and nobody else’s. You might say his life and writings were one long declaration of independence” (Spiller 26). His journey into the woods is based entirely on finding the “good life” and doing so alone since he felt that one must struggle to find his own path through life. Thoreau, like Emerson, found true beauty in nature and sought immersion in what he saw as perfection similar to that within himself. “Assuming that natural facts properly perceived and accurately transcribed must yield truth, Thoreau adopts the tone of a hard-headed empiricist” (Ruland 101). It was as if he wished for nothing else but to embody the truths he found in nature; perfect as the objects he observed (Kazin 53). Thoreau emphasized in Walden that adhering to society’s parameters is not essential to one’s journey through life, but instead, following one’s own intuition is what will eventually lead to the divinity of the soul. Just because one does not follow the actions or insights of his contemporaries, he is not necessarily falling behind, perhaps he seeks something else.
However, in order to realize such a goal, one must proudly step away from the rest of the world, the status quo, and listen to the gentle spirit inside him or herself. “If man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away” (345). Thoreau’s passion in life was derived from his hatred of conformity and manufactured ways of thinking. Independence was a way of survival for Thoreau, a lifestyle which stimulated his intellectualism and encouraged him to turn his back on society, comforting the cries of his soul.
Thoreau’s insights into individualism and a lifestyle based on intuition allowed him to succeed in society without the security of material possessions. He had no use for luxuries or wealth as he states in Walden: “…the rich man is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Most of the luxuries, and many so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind…” (175). Thoreau was preoccupied with defining the truths of nature and replenishing his soul and refused to burden himself with the artificial products of his day. In his eyes, material items gave false impressions of people and hindered the explorations of one’s intellectual resources. Thoreau disregarded material possessions during his experiment at Walden to refine his lifestyle to one of simplicity, not “frittered away by detail” (173). By simplifying one’s life, he believed one would be able to see the essentials and beauty that are residual in nature.
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. (173) Thoreau did not measure things in monetary terms but instead in how much “life” is exchanged for them. Walden pond freed him from slavery; the enslavement to material things. He called for everyone to witness his personal growth during his sojourn at Walden pond and renounce the avarice of society. “…he ultimately developed a moral philosophy in which doing without superfluities became a virtue in itself and he certainly implied that the richest and the most secure would do well to adopt what he called ‘voluntary poverty'” (Krutch 52). Thoreau’s principles were based on his belief that humanity was losing sight of what was most important: the trinity of God, nature, and the individual. Greed and materialism subjugate intuition and the passion to achieve divine wisdom. What people wore and owned became more important than what they thought, how they felt, and how they reflected the rhythm of nature.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden provide a window into the mind of a Transcendentalist-a mind which prized the divinity of nature, individuality and rejection of materialism. Both men were able to recognize the divinity which is inherent in both humanity as well as nature. Their brilliant insights intrigued many minds and encouraged further generations of writers and poets to explore their own sentiments. The popularity of their works throughout the ages is a testament to the truth of their insight. This unique blend of philosophy, religion, and literature is perhaps idealistic to the materialist, yet it offers the true path to divine wisdom.
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