A Foray Into Transcendentalism

“The lover of nature is he whose inward inward and outward senses are truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood” (Pages 216-217), in these lines, Ralph Waldo Emerson states his belief that since we are used to seeing things such as the sun, they lose their sense of wonder. For a person to be truly happy and enjoy the world around them, they must retain their child like sense of wonder.

Emerson’s essay “Nature” describes how an appreciation of nature and the use of the this appreciation to create art is what uplifts the human spirit: “Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture” (215). Art is using what is found in the natural world to create something new: digging a canal, using wood to build a house, clay to build a statue, turning a landscape into a painting.

A person can find their own mental state reflected in nature, which is always changing according to its beholder’s mood.

“Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both. It is necessary to use these pleasures with great temperance. For, nature is not always tricked into in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered with the frolic of nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today. Nature always wears the color of the spirit.”


Nature always has something to tell us if we are willing or able to stop and listen. It is important that we do not become too jaded and desensitized to nature.

Henry David Thoreau starts off his work, Walden, with the idea that people are too bogged town by survival to appreciate the things which uplift the human soul “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that” (Page 983). Often we do not find time to read a book or appreciate nature because we are too busy working or tired from working, or we are not taught the importance of such things because of the mistaken belief that survival and gain are more important.

People sell themselves into a form of slavery for material gain often to their physical and spiritual detriment

“…or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him; making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day, something to be tucked away in an old chest, or in a stocking behind the plastering, or, more safely, in the brick bank; no matter where, no matter how much or how little.

I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south.”

(Page 983).

Thoreau claims that materialistic servitude of the capitalist north is worse than the slavery found in the south because instead of being forced into it by someone else, people put themselves into this bondage.

People end up this way because of the of the outdated wisdom passed down to us from previous generations; that we must have a practical job and spend our lives focused on survival and gain. Thoreau tells that this so called “wisdom” is not longer relevant.

“What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people and new deeds for new people. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people. As the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor for it has not profited as it has lost.”

(Page 984)

People do not always have the luxury of enjoying things such as nature and nature because conventional wisdom tells them that such things are irrelevant compared to making a living and having material comfort.  The daily grind of working and surviving crushes the human soul. According to Thoreau, we must reject the conventional wisdom that the things which uplift the soul such as art, nature, and philosophy, but do not outward benefit us are not important.

Margaret Fuller expands on ideas brought up by Emerson and Thoreau but from a feminist perspective. She makes the claim that women desire spiritual and intellectual development as much as men but are often prevented from doing so because society tells that they are not meant for it.

“It is not the transient breath of poetic incense, that women want; each can receive that from a lover. It is not life-long sway; it needs but to become a coquette, a shrew or a good cook to be sure of that. It is not money , nor notoriety, nor badges of authority that men have appropriated for themselves. If demands made in  their behalf lay stress on these particulars, those who make them have not searched deeply into the need. It is for for that which at once includes all these and precludes them; which would not be forbidden power, lest there be temptation to steal and misuse it; which would not have the mind perverted by flattery from worthiness of esteem. It is for that which is the birthright of every being capable to receive it,-the freedom, the religious, the intelligent freedom of the universe, to use its means, to learn its secret as far as nature has enabled them, with God alone for their guide and judge.”

(Page 759)

Like Emerson, Fuller acknowledges that intellectual and spiritual stimulation are necessary for human happiness, and she also acknowledges Thoreau’s idea that people do not always realize that these things are necessary because they are taught to believe otherwise. Women are raised to believe that their primary goal in life to marry well and be surrounded with beauty and comfort. Education and free thinking are not considered important for them and this is what has lead to their oppression. When Thoreau says “I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south,” (Page 983), Fuller responds with “In slavery, acknowledged slavery, women are on par with men” (Page 759).

The ideas of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller build upon one another. Emerson’s essay “Nature” talks about how an appreciation of nature and the creation of art are what uplift the human soul. Thoreau’s work, “Walden”, has a chapter called “Economy” which addresses how many people are lead to believe that making money, survival, and material gain are more important than nature and art, much to their physical and emotional depriment. Fuller then says that women have the potential to be as creative and intelligent as men but are not allowed to do because of the limitations which society has placed on them.


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