Transcendentalism arose as an American philosophical movement in the early nineteenth century. Similar to romanticism, transcendentalists share a deep respect for nature and the individual. The movement emphasizes transcendence, or going beyond. In addition, transcendentalists strive to be self reliant and divine. During the development of Transcendentalism, America was facing a dichotomy. On one hand the nation was growing and was beginning to flourish. This flourishing helped the new civilization gain self confidence and made progression inevitable. On the other hand, problems began to develop and were made worse as the country began to prosper. Some of the problems include slavery, poverty, and the development of materialism.
My junior year of high school was when I began to understand the importance of being an individual. While teaching us the significance of protest, my AP English teacher my junior year had us read a portion of Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience. The essay, to put simply, argues that citizens should disobey any laws if they are inequitable. Prior to reading, I had no knowledge of transcendentalism, or even philosophy in general. I knew the importance of protest, but I never knew that an individual could take it to such an extreme. After reading the portion, I became fascinated with Thoreau and his commitment to equity and nature.
Shortly after being introduced to Thoreau, I decided to go to my local library and check out books on Thoreau. As I began to read more into Thoreau, I was introduced to Ralph Waldo Emerson. I simultaneously read some of their works and as I did, I became more content with myself and being an individual. To attempt to replicate Thoreau, I spent most of my time outside of school going on long walks through the desert where I lived. On these walks, I would take a book with me, usually something of Thoreau’s, and a journal where I would write down things that perplexed me. After walking for a while, I would find somewhere to sit and use the time to self-reflect and write down the many philosophical questions, mostly relating to metaphysics, that would come to me while on my walk.
At the time, I did not realize what I was doing and how it would affect my character. Devoting most of my time outside of school to trying to understand the secrets of the transcendentalists, in short, changed the person I was. In a way, it could be compared to a coming of age experience or just me being an angsty teen who shared the belief that “all good things are wild and free.” (Thoreau 43). Prior to ever reading any Thoreau, I had never invested time into anything outside of school, friends, family, etc. It was not until I was introduced to transcendentalism that I began to think of the big questions.
I would like to say that everyone feels as if they are an individual and that they are special, which is something I had always felt. After going through what I would like to call a transcendental phase, it makes you understand not only the importance of your individual self, but also your relationship with nature. It allowed me to form a better appreciation for the land around me and all the plants and animals that inhabit it. With this in mind, I believe it is important to teach Thoreau and Emerson.
Now that I am a bit older and am growing the skills to think analytically, I can understand how transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson can be thought of as a bit extreme. I would like to argue though that it is the extreme/demanding of their philosophies that make them great.
In the beginning Walking, Thoreau immediately addresses the difficulty most everyone has with understanding the art of walking. Before becoming a walker, one must “send our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms.” (Thoreau 5). In addition, if you have paid your debts, made your will, settled your affairs, and are a free man, then Thoreau believes you are ready for a walk. With the average American having thirty eight thousand dollars in debt, I am sure most of us are not ready for a walk based off the pay your debts requirement. Later on, Thoreau includes that walking has to come from the grace of God, and that a walker must be born into a family of walkers. Again, with having these requirements to fulfil it is clear why Thoreau has only met one or two other true walkers. Upon reading his qualifications of being a walker, it is realized he is using walking as an extended metaphor for people who think freely while they walk. In other words, a person who walks in the eyes of Thoreau is one who does not do it as part of an exercise or physical gain, but instead detaches themselves from society and uses their walk as a mental or spiritual exercise.
Thoreau distinguishes the difference between the natural forest and a front yard or garden. Specifically, he enforces that you are supposed to saunter into the deep forest whereas a garden is made to only walk through. Today in America, when most people are walking, they do so on a sidewalk or a road. Usually when people walk along the street on a sidewalk, they are accompanied by trees or bushes that were intentionally planted there. There are multiple uses for trees to be included in sidewalk paths such as providing shade or to make the street look pleasant and have the appeal that a forest may. When attempting to observe this through the eyes of Thoreau, there are obvious criticisms. While walking on a sidewalk, we like to remind ourselves of the sensation of what it is to be in a forest. Although there can be no problem with doing so, it has the potential to drive us further away from a connection to nature. Because we have already fulfilled our physical walk and were surrounded somewhat by trees, there is no need to dwell deep into a forest or seek nature for a couple hours. With the produced lack of engagement with nature, we are not able to lose ourselves or think freely as Thoreau and the few may have. It demonstrates a disconnect from nature and that society is comfortable enough to disregard it until the point that most urban trees are seen more than wild ones are.
To Thoreau, “life consist with wilderness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.” (Thoreau 36). With this in mind, nowadays most people would not strive to go and live in the wild. For something to be wild, it has to be in its natural place. Making the assumption that nature is man’s natural place, we are living in an environment that is not quite suited for us. Thoreau wrote that in most men the desire for a society is stronger than being alone in nature.
Having all things considered, Thoreau can be quite critical. While Thoreau is comfortable spending his time “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements” others in lower social classes are forced to work, many of them plowing the fields that Thoreau does not appreciate (Thoreau 7). This whimsical approach to wilderness could be overlooked were it not for the audacity of Thoreau to belittle the livelihoods of the people who make their living off the commercial value of nature. This perception of nature raises the question of whether Thoreau should be taken with a grain of salt. He views it romantically, referring to nature as “the jewel which dazzled me” but seems to forget that were it not for the exploitation of this jewel he would not have a home to live in, paper to write on, or any of the other luxuries in his life that nature provides him (Thoreau 37). It could be argued that he values the nature he exploits more than the commercial farmer or that he limits himself to what he takes, but a hint of hypocrisy still remains. For instance, his father was a pencil maker and Thoreau even work for his father during a brief period. In the words of Thoreau, a man’s ignorance is not only useful, but beautiful (62).
Personally, I believe that when we absorb the world around us and our environment we are able to become aware of our ignorance. When we are in urban environments, it is easy to think that we know it all. Thoreau’s point is that until we are able to be with nature, where we can truly think freely, then we understand that despite what we think we know there is still so much that we don’t know. The exercise of walking in nature breaks you down spiritually and reminds us to keep an open mind and open ourselves up to knowledge. We have achieved great things as a society, but if we do not devote some time into our relationship with nature then we will live under the false impression that we know everything.
To conclude, transcendentalism should not be overlooked simply because it has the tendency to be extreme. Not only has the transcendental movement been highly influential.
Without Thoreau and Emerson, there is the possibility that I wouldn’t have sparked curiosity for the world around me and began pursuing philosophy.
With that being said, I would like to acknowledge that transcendentalism may not be for everyone. As I mentioned prior with my criticisms on Thoreau, they can be quite whimsical and disregard others who do not have the advantages Thoreau, and other transcendentalists, may have had. I have come to find that what transcendentalists say is meaningful, but at times it can seem almost impossible to live as a true transcendentalist.