Emerson and Thoreau

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An influential literary movement in the nineteenth century, transcendentalism placed an emphasis on the wonder of nature and its deep connection to the divine. As the two most prominent figures in the transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau whole-heartedly embraced these principles. In their essays “Self-Reliance” and “Civil Disobedience”, Emerson and Thoreau, respectively, argue for individuality and personal expression in different manners. In “Self-Reliance”, Emerson calls for individuals to speak their minds and resist societal conformity, while in “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau urged Americans to publicly state their opinions in order to improve their own government. Both Thoreau and Emerson argue that asserting one’s opinions is crucial to attaining a better society. Emerson decries the danger of societal conformity and challenges the reader to “speak what you think now in hard words” in order to remedy it (Emerson 367). Likewise, Thoreau speculates that if “every man make known what kind of government would command his respect” it would be “one step toward obtaining it” (Thoreau 381). With these remarkably similar statements, both transcendentalists appeal to the reader’s patriotism by using language evocative of the agitated and outraged colonial Americans who demanded the people’s voice be heard in government. Although published roughly a half century later, “Self-Reliance” and “Civil Disobedience” mirror the sentiments of famous Revolution-era leaders such as Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry. Additionally, Emerson and Thoreau both warn the reader of the dangers when individuality is marginalized. Emerson views society as a “conspiracy against the manhood of every one of... ... middle of paper ... ...the law where every individual follows his own set of rules (Thoreau 381). Although assuredly in favor of individuality, Thoreau recognizes that a democracy requires public consensus and popular support. While Emerson and Thoreau certainly have difference of opinions, they recognize the need for public discussion and discourse. Emerson declares “a foolish consistency” to be “the hobgoblin of little minds” (Emerson 367). This is shown in their essays “Self-Reliance” and “Civil Disobedience” in which they support individuality and personal expression. Despite their contrasting views of society and government, the two most prominent transcendentalists in literary history share a passionate belief in the necessity that every American must exercise their constitutional rights and make known their views even and especially if it challenges the status quo.
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