Transcendentalism is a philosophy that espoused the strength and value of the individual, grounding thoughts and religion around the idea of individual power and idealism (Koster, 1975). According to transcendentalism, reality is centered around the idea of the self; man relies on itself in order to continue existing and thriving, and there is a kind of spirituality that comes from being able to sustain oneself and succeed on their own. Henry David Thoreau, in his works Walden and “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” showcases his transcendentalist ideas in a number of ways.
In his novel Walden, Thoreau details the two years he spent living by himself on Walden Pond, learning about himself and how to survive in meager conditions. The entirety of the book is inspired greatly by transcendentalism, especially the ideals of self-reliance and autonomy. From the start of the book he states, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau, p. 15). In his way, Thoreau wanted to break the cycle of materialism and the pursuit of wealth, which he felt made their lives shallower and not as philosophically rich. The ‘desperation’ of the people came from a desire to have something important in their lives, and transcendentalism, according to Thoreau, could provide it.
Thoreau explains the purpose behind his desire to live in the wilderness – “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Thoreau, p. 143). The meaning of life, for Thoreau, is to live it; living deliberately means making one’s own choices and supporting their consequences, a central point of transcendentalism. He wanted to make sure that he got the most out of life, and to carve his own path in the process.
Solitude was espoused by the author as both a way of life and a means to learn about oneself – “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude” (Thoreau, p. 202). By being close to nature, he could form a more spiritual connection with the world around him, linking it to him as an individual, in line with transcendentalist beliefs of being one with nature. Thoreau had a very special outlook on nature, and formed a close relationship to it over the course of his time there – “A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is intermediate between land and sky” (Thoreau, p. 255). New life to him represented the restored vision of man through connection with nature, and being ‘intermediate between land and sky’ makes the pond a metaphor for the soul, linking Heaven with the earth.
Travel was never highly thought of by Thoreau – he does not think going elsewhere to learn about yourself is effective – “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar” (Thoreau, p. 302). Since the self is the most important thing, the best place to look for enlightenment is within yourself; soul searching provides more effective learning than a frivolous trip to an exotic place.
In his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau states the responsibility of the self to its own beliefs and conscience, stating that allowing a government to force a person to sacrifice their beliefs make them party to these injustices. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.… where the State places those who are not with her, but against her,– the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence” (Thoreau, 1849). This quote comes from his opposition to slavery, and the call for abolitionists to simply stop contributing to the system that does something they oppose by ceasing to pay taxes. In this way, the essay follows transcendentalist ideals of focusing on the self and not lending credence to any higher society or government that could have power over them.
His other works also betray his transcendentalist beliefs; in his essay “Life Without Principle,” he says, “As for the comparative demand which men make on life, it is an important difference between two, that the one is satisfied with a level success, that his marks can all be hit by point-blank shots, but the other, however low and unsuccessful his life may be, constantly elevates his aim, though at a very slight angle to the horizon” (Thoreau, 1854). This evidences the desire for men to better themselves, but at a gradual pace. Also, Thoreau finds further proof of the value of nature in his essay “Walking” – “In wildness is the preservation of the world” (Thoreau, 1861).
In conclusion, Henry David Thoreau was most certainly a transcendentalist, owing to his beliefs in the importance of the self, of personal discovery over useless travel and money-searching, and the assertion of individual beliefs over government mandate. Thoreau thought that one should not give up one’s own principles to serve others, or because they have an arbitrarily assigned sense of power over another. In his major works, his values of personal responsibility and accountability, as well as man’s connection with nature, are clear.
Koster, Donald Nelson. Transcendentalism in America. new york, new york: Twayne Publishers, 1975. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. Life without principle. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue ;, 1854. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walking. bbok: NetLibrary, 1861. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Philomel Books, 1990. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. On the duty of civil disobedience (Walden). Gloucester, Massachusetts: Echo Library, 2006. Print.