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Transcendentalism of Henry David Thoreau Essay

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Henry David Thoreau had many talents and interests and who spent most of his time communing and appreciating nature.  He even looked for God behind the stars.  In his works, he urged his readers to re-examine their lives as he did with his.  He had many questions about life and searched nature for answers.  He was fundamentally a transcendentalist in the sense that he goes beyond sensual experiences to see the innermost meanings in the mundane.  He sees not just the physical beauty of nature, but also its effect on the spirit, and its significance to life.

  In On Civil Disobedience and in Walden he bared his transcendental philosophies to his readers.

            On Civil Disobedience.  At one point he questioned a government ruled by the majority.  The majority came to power only because of their strength in numbers and not because they were a collective body who were right in everything, every time.  Even if the minority had come to accept that as fair enough, it was still contentious if the majority’s decisions were based on right over wrong and not just what were easy and acceptable.

  Thoreau further asserted that only conscience can decide right from wrong.  Every single man, therefore had surrendered his conscience to this majority.

Why then, he asked, should each man be given his own conscience?  He believed that man must stand up for what he thinks is right and not just let the majority to decide it for him.  Respect for what is right must take precedence over respect for law.  It is every citizen’s moral duty to defend what is right all the time.  He cited corporations and soldiers to expound on his thoughts about conscience.  It is generally accepted that corporations have no conscience, but if it is run by men of conscience then it becomes one with a conscience.  Laws do not make a society just.  It makes citizens obey laws that do them injustice instead.  The soldiers are made to march to war “against their wills, against their common sense and consciences” (Thoreau 1849).

            In Walden Chapter 1 – Economy.  An Indian wove baskets to sell to his neighbors. The Indian thought that weaving baskets was something he could do and assumed that such was his role in life, as it was his neighbor’s role to buy his baskets.  The basket would put food on the Indian’s table.

A neighbor refused to buy.  For Thoreau, the Indian must realize that his neighbors must really want to buy the baskets, or the Indian must make the baskets attractive to at least tempt the neighbors to buy them, or the Indian must make something else to sell to his neighbors.  Thoreau himself made a basket but he did not make it to sell it but he made it so no one would buy it. What Thoreau was trying to point out was that one need not only see his side of things.  He must see beyond one’s end and consider others have their own desires and thoughts, which may sometimes be contrary to his.

            In Walden Chapter 5 – Solitude.  Thoreau found moments alone as wholesome, recreating and reparative.  Solitude does not make one lonely.  There will be times when a person would rather be by himself than in a company of strangers.  A man at work or in deep thoughts, even in an office or in school with people around, can still be alone.  Physical distance between a man and other people does not make him alone.

When one is busy even if he is alone will not make lonely.  Strange, though, that when he comes home in the company of family after work, he seeks to compensate for the solitude he had spent earlier in the day.  When asked if there were days when Thoreau would wish to be nearer the others instead of the isolation of the woods, he countered that he was nearer than the nearest star in the Milky Way.  He said that there would be nowhere that he would wish to be near than nature that give and nourish life, like the brooks and the trees.

            In Walden Chapter 8 – The Village.  Losing one’s way in the woods when it was very dark was common and happened often.   One was guided by one’s feet instead of one’s eyes in finding one’s way back.  Even the one most familiar with the way was lost in the woods too.  For Thoreau these people were like the pilots who were guided by beacons and lighthouses, who were steered off course but were guided back by their intuitions.   Thoreau believed that it is only when we have lost our way, that we realize that our world is indeed so vast.  It is also when we are jolted back from stupor, momentary distraction or confusion that we check our compass again to find our way back.  It is also when we have lost everything that we realize how blessed we were all along.  It is also through all these that we find ourselves.

            In Walden Chapter 10 – Baker Farm.  Thoreau’s next door neighbor was an Irishman who dreamt of life in America with tea, coffee and meat.  He and his son had to work hard to afford these.  Thoreau had much simpler life compared to the Irishman.  Thoreau had a small house that was easier to clean and tidy up.  He did not work hard, so he would not have to eat much and he did not live on tea, coffee and meat so he did not have work hard to buy them.

For the kind of hard work the Irishman did, he had to have thick clothes and thick boots which were more costly than Thoreau’s light clothing.  Thoreau did light work, like fishing, and he had more than enough to feed him for the week.  The Irishman dreamt of a comfortable life in America.  Thoreau thought that life in America was not about comfort but more of freedom to live in comfort.  From the look of things, the Irishman would not improve his lot if he continued to work hard and not change his mind set and attitude in life.

            In Walden Chapter 17 – Spring.  Spring is like man reborn.  We are upbeat in anticipation of opportunities ahead.  The lesson of Spring is to live in the present and leave the past behind.  To see the world with renewed sense of joy and promise, we must forget the burdens and the unpleasant past.  Hurts, anger and pain have healed and forgiveness had taken their places.  When Spring comes, we should not live in Winter.  Even plants come into life in Spring.  Thoreau had likened our life to Spring when God has forgiven and forgotten our sins and we come into the Spring of our lives.


Thoreau, H.D. On Civil Disobedience.  Constitution Society.

Retrieved August 24, 2008 from


Thoreau, H.D.  Walden.  Retrieved August 24, 2008 from


Woodlief, A.  Henry David Thoreau.  American Transcendentalism Web.

Retrieved August 24, 2008 from http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/thoreau/

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