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How Transcendentalist Ideas Influence the Role of an Individual in Society

Updated on July 6, 2017


Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement developed in the nineteenth century mainly in the New England. It majorly protested against intellectualism and spirituality. The supporters of transcendentalism have a belief that the society and its constituents are behind the corruption of individuals. Christy, (p.102) says that they also believe people are at their best when independent and self-reliant. They strongly believe in the power of an individual.In its development, the movement advocated for free conscience and intellectual reasoning. Transcendentalists have a belief that a true community is created by real individuals living in it. Transcendentalism was greatly influenced by Indian religion. Ideally, transcendentalists differed especially on its practicality. In this paper, we will discuss Thoreau’s and Emerson’s views on transcendentalism ideas and how they have influenced the role of an individual in the society. Many critiques argue that the ideas brought by the movement were impractical.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Views and how Transcendentalism has Changed the role of Individuals

Emerson was an American and he led the transcendentalist movement. He championed for individualism in many of his essays. Individuals are now self-driven and have self-believed in the things they do. The society with such people has higher chances of developing since people do not wait for others to perform a task which they can easily carry out. During his meetings, he invited women such as Margaret Fuller to the movement. Women role in the community has changed due to this act. Most females see themselves as self-reliant unlike before where many did not have self-believe.

Women have a higher place in the development of the society for example, in politics where most of them perceive to be a man’s field. In his address titled “The American Scholar”, Emerson urges Americans to consider developing a unique writing style to outdo that one from Europe since America had achieved literary independence (77). From this statement, we can conclude that transcendentalism can extend to a situation of a nation. A country can be self-reliant and independent from the world at large. The movement has led to many nations coming up with creations and decisions of their own hence gaining a lot of respect by the international community.

In his essay “self-reliance” Emerson speaks of how independent one can be from the other people. By closely analyzing these statements we see that transcendentalism promotes capitalism in the society. People move away from socialism and start having a property of their own. One also has ideas of his own and does not have to wait for a collective decision making. He explains “For a man to believe his own thought, to believe in his own heart what is true for him is the nature of man (Emerson, 78). An individual does not need an approval of his thoughts from anyone or anything. Diversity is therefore appreciated and this means that people can have different thoughts on the same idea. With these thoughts, the outcome is perfected. According to Emerson, there is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide. Most evil in the society is based on envy and imitation. Take for example a person who envies his neighbor’s car and goes on to steal it, he creates social unrest. The situation would be different if he did not care at all about what his friend has and he doesn’t. Transcendentalism, therefore, cools down the unrest as one desires to own what he wants not what others have. The virtue of responsibility is diffused into an individual through the movement.

Emerson observes that most people have self-resolutions when alone but as they enter the world these dreams are dissolved away. In his view, the Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Personal decisions should be used to change the society positively, not the other way round. Customs, beliefs, and practices should not alter what one stands for. A man should always give himself or herself the first priority in any given situation. Prioritizing oneself is not same as being greedy or selfish. Many people dare not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am ‘but are quick to quote what others say. Emerson also attempted to distinguish between reasoning and understanding. Both terms instruct man, but reasoning according to Emerson connects man with the spiritual world.

David Thoreau Views and how Transcendentalism has impacted on Individual roles

Thoreau was an American naturalist, development critic, and a leading transcendentalist. Unlike Emerson, Thoreau used his idea of transcendentalism to fight against slavery and bad governance. In his famous essay “Civil Disobedience”, he argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule their consciences. Some legislation goes against what many citizens believe in and according to Thoreau citizen should disobey such laws. Individuals can use this idea to ensure that those in power do not do injustices and themselves are not made agents of injustice. Thoreau said that slavery was not to be supported as it went against the movement. A master should survive without the assistance of his servant or slave. Democracy is not the cure to injustice because only the opinion of the majority is incorporated. The minority might be the one with the virtues of wisdom and justice but in the democracy, they are ignored. “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.” From this statement David believes that an independent person should not be quick to judge himself or herself from the achievements or failures of others.

Koster, (p.41) argues that a human being should desire for more and better than what he has. When wishes do not come true we should not stop wanting more. “...for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I…” Thoreau thought that it was good to appreciate others but not imitating them. To the society, there is development since people get to commend the success of others.

The Walden Pond experiment is also another factor that made Thoreau be quite popular. He went to live by himself in an endeavor to live a simple life. He lived in a secluded place for two and half years. “It appears to me that most men are unaware on the benefit of living a simple life”. This was a quote he wrote after he came from the pond. David (P.57) believes that the movement was trying to create a better way to live but not to promote a man over religion. Walden Pond also shows that man at times needs time alone to realign his or her thoughts. When at the pond David promoted the conservation of the environment in his work.

Comparison between Emerson’s and Thoreau’s views on Transcendentalism

The two scholars had almost similar ideas on transcendentalism since they mostly worked together. They were of the view that an individual should be self-centered ideologically. A man should use these ideas for self and socio-development. Thoreau goes beyond to say that the movement should be used to fight for rights and against bad governance. Both have the same view on nature. Each individual should have a personal understanding of the universe. We should not rely on the information passed on by those before us.

It should also be noted that Both Emerson and Thoreau were nonconformists. However, they had divergent perspectives on some of their views. For instance, while Emerson’s belief in individualism was that individuals ought to be found in nature, Thoreau’s belief on the same subject was that in order for one to be happy with what he or she is, then such a person has to truly live. Another difference between the views of these two authors was that while Emerson believed that it was important for the government to have authority in controlling the lives of individuals, Thoreau did not believe in that aspect and instead argued that the government ought not to get into people’s affairs. However, he discouraged individuals against rebelling or the acting against the government of the day (Thoreau 16).

Modern Transcendentalism

One might have the notion that transcendentalism is an ancient idea which does not exist in the modern society. The opposite of this statement is actually the truth. It is not as outspoken as in the mid- 19th century. Today statements like, “I am my own person”, “I am no here to impress you” are commonly used. What these people are actually trying to say is that they are transcendentalists. Most economists of today advocate for this idea so as to avoid misuse of money by people as they try to impress others. Though they do not usually use the term, they mean it with their statements. The entertainment industry also massively uses this idea. For Example, an artist cannot write or sing based on the idea of another person without permission. This is simply transcendentalism as it advocates for people to have ideas of their own.

People have also come up with quotes which support the movement. A good example is "You have a limited time in this world, so do not waste it and do not live like someone else”. The modern movement does not encourage people to be self-centered but to be true to themselves. It is called living authentically. Whereby; one interacts and do things with others, but you he or she does not overstretch his/her beliefs to please people.


Transcendentalism was developed on the thought that governments and religious organizations corrupted individuals. Newman (p.307) says that the philosophy greatly focuses on individuality and as I have discussed it has so many benefits. However, it is not very wise to ignore the aspect of the larger community. Some individuals realize their highest potential in a group. For others, they are at their best if given time alone without any interference. A Greek aphorism, “know thyself” is a phrase each man should always consider. Modern transcendentalism has evolved to incorporate other people. The issue is to be oneself not to be alone and lonely.


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    • profile image


      18 months ago

      Transcendentalism is an individual journey other beings who have followed such paths can only offer insights, nothing more.


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