A Comparison Essay Example: Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Published: 2022-09-26
A Comparison Essay Example: Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Philosophers Henry David Thoreau
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1126 words
10 min read

Emerson and Thoreau, important American thinkers, defended the ancient idea of philosophy as a deliberate way of life, concerned with critical self-improvement or self-improvement. Both fought the restriction of philosophy to an only academic subject for pure intellect. Emerson, in his essay "History" praises the artist for his "power to awaken other souls", and at the same time argues that the "nobler souls" from an ethical point of view play the same role, because that a noble character "awakens in us, by his deeds and his words, by his manners and all his appearance, that same power and that same beauty to which is addressed a gallery of sculpture or painting. Echoing this suggestion that aesthetic and ethical greatness has the power to awaken us to a higher life, Thoreau says that "poetry, art, the most beautiful and most memorable actions of men, begin at this time (the morning) (Bartleby Writing 1). All poets and heroes [...] are the children of Dawn, and have their song heard at sunrise "- in the spiritual and not chronological sense that he puts forward (Bartleby Writing 1). And so the idea of awakening envelops the very clear ethical element of victory over the pleasant lethargy or comfortable laziness associated with sleep and its lying position. While Art in the Vital State and Living Philosophy argued for a pragmatist aesthetic that sought to reinstate aesthetic principles in the ethical and practical conduct of life, these ideas had already been prefigured by Emerson and Thoreau.

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Emerson and Thoreau advocated for an enlightened life, the key to their ideal of life. Emerson and Thoreau insist on the sustained discipline and the ambitious resolution ("elevation of purpose") that it claims, even if they also recognize that genius is not entirely a matter of individual will to perfect oneself, but demands to let go or surrender to higher forces than the individual, so that these superior forces manage to express themselves through individual genius (which is always more than individual). Considering the austerity implied by methods in order to live an awakened life, Emerson and Thoreau do not recommend it for the powers it would confer in performing the earthly tasks of physical work, but because it engenders gifts and inspiration for artistic, ethical, intellectual, and spiritual achievements; and it is these same accomplishments (in the order of beauty, virtue, knowledge, wisdom, and penetration) that in turn awaken human beings to enlightened life. This is not necessarily a vicious circle since what has already been accomplished can awaken new people to enlightened life, and thereby to new achievements. Another value of awakening seems to be a greater or more concentrated consciousness. Another benefit of greater awareness is a better appreciation of the meaning of what people do because people take the time to make themselves more explicitly aware of their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Nature is order, said the American philosopher Emerson; it was neither designed nor built by man, so it is neither fake nor artificial, it was not polluted by prejudices and lies. Emerson's belief was that the natural world is wild and uncontaminated, just like the human soul. Emerson found in nature his morality, the models through which he could apply, the practice of a theoretical system that alone would never have stood up. "No law can be sacred to me except that of my nature." Man, as well as the environment that surrounds him, is actually wild and has within himself an order, which is the same that is found in nature. An order that man cannot understand until he stops to contemplate and study what is most authentic: nature. But it is evident, people live in a society that worries with the anguish of institutions, of production, of civilization, of progress, and not of that universal law that, despite all human efforts and progress, human beings continue to share with nature. Emerson, in his essay "Become Who You Are," maintains that "the great man is the one who in the midst of the crowd perfectly preserves the independence of solitude" (Enotes 1).

Thoreau tended to adopt slightly more radical thoughts than his mentor, Emerson. Thoreau, like Rousseau, spoke of a return to nature that is real and literal, of a departure from the civilized world to find oneself. Thoreau's experience can be summarized by the famous statement (contained in his most important work, Walden or life in the woods) "the majority of men live in quiet despair", which is also the reason why the philosopher, at only twenty-eight, he decided to go and live in the woods for two years, to understand and assimilate the true essence of life (BrightKite 1). Like Emerson, Thoreau also argued that it is in nature that we draw the fundamental teachings through which we can be authentic and live in the civilized world. In other words: if people knew the laws of nature, they would need only one fact, or the description of a real phenomenon, to deduce all the particular results, and any deviation from established patterns in the natural world would distract man from his true nature.

Emerson and Thoreau did not offer the photograph of a beautiful landscape or the bucolic description of the natural world with their work, but they went further: they knew how to identify beauty with nature, they outlined that order inherent in nature (and in people) which is teaching and reflection, as well as universal law. They left us a precious gift, which cannot be squandered, and which is the humility of self-seeking, of the knowledge of the world and of reflection on life and death, in the strict sense of philosophy. But the most important message they left is that laws cannot govern the free spirit of the individual. The truth is that even if people have to live in a closed world, cold and subjected to the rigid mechanisms of an austere system, human beings have, and forever will have, the freedom to look at the world before them, and seek the direction and the orientation they need to be able to live in dignity and be themselves.

Works Cited

Bartleby Writing. "A Comparison of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Beliefs." A Comparison of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo... | Bartleby. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2018.

BrightKite. "A Comparison of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Beliefs." A Comparison of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Beliefs - Essay - 750 Words - BrightKite. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2018.

Enotes. "What Is One Similarity between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau? (Civil Disobedience and Self Reliance Evidence) I Need to Find Quote from Each of Their Essays to Prove Their One Similarity." Enotes.com. Enotes.com, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2018.

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