Emerson and Thoreau: Alike

Romanticism was artistic, literary, an intellectual movement that originated in the 1800s. This was a time in which the literary arts flourished and some of the most influential writers of our era came to be recognized for their brilliance. Romanticism is partly based against a revolt on the aristocratic social and political norms of the age of Enlightenment.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were some of the most influential writers of the time. Emerson was Thoreau’s mentor and closest friend. The two often had similar views but differed on some key ideas. Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance” which was influenced by a transcendentalist philosophy. Emerson stressed equality, self-reliance, and the idea of an individual having a destiny that he must fulfill. “… That he must take himself for better for worse his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him till…” (364) Emerson did not want government involved in the life of the individual, instead he asked them to stand up and be responsible their own actions.

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His principal ideas were based on the fact that people should not conform to society but in fact be independent and self-efficient. Only then can he really live in a world where he can accomplish tasks to his fullest abilities, and only by blocking out the concerns of others would this occur. Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” is similar to the ideas of Emerson in many ways, however Thoreau seemed to have a more radical view on government involvement in everyday life. “… which also I believe,— ‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”(370) Thoreau wrote with a much harsher tone, well against conformity he encouraged people to fight against the government.

He pressured people into taking a move forceful stand on the idea of freedom. While Emerson’s writing was more about improving yourself, Thoreau wrote about improving the government and man taking a stand. “Self-Reliance” and “Civil Disobedience” both have a commonality in the fact that we can still find their used in modern-day society. Both authors discuss nonconformity in the belief individualism, by which Emerson states, “Whoso be a man, must be a nonconformist.” (364) This idea of not giving into the norm holds to be a strong belief in today’s society.

Both styles of writing also include contemplation within them; as Thoreau questioning his audience states, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavour to amend them, and obey them until we have succeed or shall we transgress them at once?(373)” Thoreau and Emerson often ask themselves questions about what is right and what will benefit society the most. This questioning of life adds to the philosophical movement of transcendentalism. Thoreau and Emerson’s views alike still influence our every day lives. These two writers brought along this modern-day government philosophy. So different in their style of writing and radicalism, both stressed social responsibility and individual. These thoughts are incorporated into our teachings every day and have evolved society over the last century.