Lessons of the Transcendentalists

A wooden walkway through the woods.
A wooden walkway through the woods.

Introducing the ideology of Transcendentalism in the 1840’s, Transcendentalist authors began to shed the light on individualism and nature. Rather than preconceived secular doctrine ruling the minds of writers and artists alike, Transcendentalist writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau go against this mindset. In the Americanized version of Europe’s Enlightenment period, Transcendentalist writers focused on the importance of the individual, and believed that no institution could be stronger. Commonly associated with Transcendentalism are several basic tenets that illustrate the driving forces behind Transcendentalism. Writers Emerson and Thoreau are the most iconic authors of the period, and three central tenets that they express in their works are the importance of nature, self-reliance and the importance of non-conformist individualism. Emerson and Thoreau brilliantly highlight the emerging importance of the individual, and the individual’s place in nature, but most importantly the world in which they reside.


_____Ralph Waldo Emerson____

Sideburns were in then, apparently.
Sideburns were in then, apparently. | Source

Transcendentalist writers realized that Man cannot live without nature, and that nature is essential for life to exist. Emerson is credited with knowledge of nature from personal experiences, as excerpt from Nature states, “In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth” (Emerson 388).What this passage illustrates is the link between man and nature, and how man can find himself in nature and rid himself of his burdens and responsibilities. Also, how in nature one can simply default on life and all of its worries, even if it is just for the most insignificant amount of time. How one can experience tranquility of the mind and soul by connecting themselves to nature, “In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, a man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature” (Emerson). The Transcendentalists stress the idea that without nature man is nothing. Survival is prevalent to man, and nature should be preserved and respected by man if he wishes to keep on surviving.


Another idea that is supported by the Transcendentalists is that of self-reliance. Not only is it the belief that the individual is the most discernible element of a society, but that an individual must experience independence in its entirety. This is the thought that man shall reap his own reward by his own means, accomplished through his perseverance and hard work. Self-reliance is the notion that one should not rely upon society to dissipate his woes; rather, one should rely upon himself to solve his dilemmas. If a man has enough confidence to go forth and live his life, then life shall be kind to him: “…if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours” (Thoreau 408).However, self-reliance is not just about depending on oneself to accomplish success and to sustain a balanced mind, but also of being content with ones’ predicament. As Emerson illustrates in his essay Self-Reliance, “Accept the place the divine providence has found for you; the society of your contemporaries…” (Emerson 391). Although individualism is attributed with non-conformism, it is important that an individual can adapt, to the situations they are presented with as they strive to live their life.

______Henry David Thoreau____

Nice beard, man.
Nice beard, man. | Source

Lastly, and possibly the most important idea expressed by all those who called themselves Transcendentalists was the idea of individualism, and non-conformity. It’s not upon the fact that society it bad, it’s just the premise that not all societal bonds are needed; limited society and limited government makes for a better living style. The belief is that a person must make his quest against the norm and current of societal boundaries and restrictions in their quest to survive. As Thoreau dictates in his book Walden , “If a man does not keep pace with his companions…Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” (Thoreau 408) An individual does have the ability to live in a society, but, if that said individual gets caught up in that society, than his entity is absorbed into the life of the society, and is thus erased as a whole. Without the power of the individual, humanity would not be as diverse as it is in its survival today. The power of the individual reigns over the serene boredom of humanity, and gives man a reason to survive, to strive, and to succeed, which is a message fully endorsed by Transcendentalists.

In conclusion the ideas expressed by Emerson and Thoreau depicted a new viewpoint from which the world could now look to. Paying attention to nature and the importance of the individual, the Transcendentalists stressed the three important tenets of nature, self-reliance, and the importance of non-conformist individualism. Their works helped to shape the mindsets of a country that would soon be set back in a brutal Civil War. The thoughts and central ideas expressed by the Transcendentalists are still prevalent today, and they shall continue to shape the ideology of America for centuries to come.

A Great Birch
A Great Birch

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backporchstories 4 years ago from Kentucky

I am all about nature and being an individual! After reading your article, I am reminded how much influence writers can have on a mass of people. Love this topic!

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