Emerson’s Transcendental Vision of Nature and Society Thesis Proposal Ho-chin Hsieh

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Emerson’s Transcendental Vision of Nature and Society
Thesis Proposal
Ho-chin Hsieh

Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not

yet man. Without it, thought can never

ripen into truth.
─Emerson, “The American Scholar”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most well-known American Transcendentalists, has gained a worldwide reputation for his philosophy of nature. Owing to his great nature philosophy, not a few readers believe that in order to live a genuine life, one has to lead the life of a hermit just as the first sentence of Nature indicates: “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society”1(9). It will be a pity, however, if Emerson’s treasurable thoughts are limited only to the advocacy of nature. There are some other voices which still need to be investigated.

In 2000, Sarah Ann Wider declared: “It is time to expand the Emerson canon beyond Nature” (2). Besides nature, it is time that we, as modern readers, probe into other corners of the treasure house of Emerson’s Transcendentalism. Recently, many scholars, such as Maurice Gonnaud, Len Gougeon, Charles E. Mitchell and Peter S. Field, have published some noteworthy works on Emerson and “produced … the current renaissance in Emerson studies” (Cayton 111). These works, differing from conventional ones, unfold Emerson as a social-oriented figure. In the past, many scholars marked Emerson as a man whose “prevailing moods are lofty” and regarded him as a “superior person incapable of ease and friendly contacts with ordinary people” (Jackson 172). Recent studies, in contrast, are oriented toward Emerson’s association with society. They propose that Emerson is not a “remotely representative man peculiarly detached from his social circumstances of his age” (Cayton 113); on the contrary, he is a man who is “both sensitive and responsive to the concerns of his age.” Starting from this point, this thesis aims to study Emerson’s transcendental vision as a whole, in which nature and society are equally important. It will trace his social concern back to his philosophy of nature because, instead of being separated from each other, nature and society are both significant in the cultivation of the individual. Thus, by investigating the importance of both, this thesis proposes to demonstrate that Emerson’s transcendental vision involves not only nature but also society and that instead of just being a transcendental thinker, he is also great doer.

For a long time people have understood only partially Transcendentalism, which arose in America in the nineteenth century. Generally speaking, Transcendentalism, grounded in feeling and intuition, is defined as “a turn away from modern society, with its getting and spending, to the scenes and objects of the natural world, which were regarded both as physical facts and as correspondences to aspects of the human spirit” (Abrams 327). Stressing the importance of nature, the Transcendentalists urge themselves and other people to feel and immerse themselves in nature, for one is able to find his original self only if he “go[es] into solitude” and “retire[s] … as much from his chamber as from society.” This emphasis on nature is great, but incomplete. There are other aspects of Transcendentalism worth careful investigation. Among them, the advocacy of individualism and democracy are two of the most important ones.

The Transcendentalists’ upholding of individualism and democracy roots in their emphasis on the importance of the individual. According to William Harmon, “self-trust and self-reliance [are] to be practiced at all times” (525) because the Transcendentalists believe that in order to be a good individual, one needs to rely upon himself. They think that if a man2 trusts himself, he can then follow the inner voice of his heart without being misguided by buzz around him; likewise, if he is able to rely on himself, he will be a helping hand in society instead of being a mere follower. Drawing on this idea, the Transcendentalists exhort people to value the self, cultivate the self, and then in the end to ameliorate the society as a whole, for a good society is made up of good individuals.

This stress on the importance of the individual paves the way for the development of American democracy for the self-reliant and self-trust the Transcendentalists advocate helps their fellowmen to imagine a self-governed government and a liberal but disciplined society. To put it in another way, self-reliance and self-trust are important to the Transcendentalists because they think a democratic society needs individuals with a high degree of self-reliance and self-trust to build and maintain: the former ensures the independence of a government while the latter gives the individual confidence in a democratic society.

A democratic society counts on the individuals and needs each of them to be self-trusting and self-reliant. Thus, when Emerson appeals to his fellowmen to “be alone” (9) and get close to nature, he is actually asking the individual to get along with his self, to be true to it and cultivate it through immersion in nature. But Emerson does not mean for the individual to get detached from society; on the contrary, he should attach himself to it, for the individual, nature and society are closely related. In short, only by realizing the connection between them can we perceive Emerson’s transcendental vision as a whole.

As discussed before, the cultivation of the individual contributes to establishment and maintenance of an ideal society. Emerson himself in the beginning was not so sure if man did need to interact with society. Yet, after he traveled to Europe, he realized the necessity. He visited Europe in his thirties. There he met Wordsworth, Carlyle, etc. and was touched by their thoughts and deeds. Watching them making efforts to reform their society, he came to realize that in order to live a whole life, it was necessary for man to interweave nature with society. Thus, influenced by Europeans at the time, he got a broader perspective on the individual and society.

Since The Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776, America had experienced a long phase of tumult and undergone different types of government─from independent states, the Confederation to a central and national government. Both leaders of the government and its people spent time in getting adapted to a new nation. Sometimes, the government abused its strong power over its people and man’s rights as well individuality were ignored. Under these circumstances, people, like the Transcendentalists, stood up and asked for individualism and democracy. They stated that government was not the master of its citizens and that no government had the right over its citizens. Each citizen, as an independent individual, should have enough free space to develop himself and make his own decisions. In “Politics,” Emerson indicates that “the growth of the Individual” is “the antidote to this abuse of formal Government” (567). Accordingly, the self-reliant individual can end a government-centered government and create a citizen-centered one.

Religion is another factor that made Emerson call people’s attention to the individual’s importance. The eighteenth-century American society was strongly influenced by Puritanism, which asserted man’s original sin. People at that time believed that humans should be submissive to God and that an individual should repent and atone for his own sin. Nonetheless, Emerson stated “our lives are for living not expiation” (Jackson 193). We do not live to expiate but to improve ourselves and fulfill our dreams. In a society where the individual were submissive and suppressed religiously, it was noteworthy that Emerson emphasized the importance of the individual.

The Transcendentalists’ stressing the importance of the individual was also shown in their attitude toward slavery issue. Along with the spring up of textile industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, slavery problem was getting more and more serious. Due to the mass textile industry, cotton was badly needed. Factories required a large number of workers to plant, chop and pick cotton. The slave trade was then geared up to meet the labor demand. In this slavery system, slaves were deprived of basic human rights, nor could they choose their way of living. Such a system astonished Emerson and other Transcendentalists. They could not accept the fact that an individual could be allowed to legally buy and sell another individual and dominate his life. This slavery system so violated the Transcendentalists’ notion of individualism that some of them, including Emerson, devoted themselves to abolishing the system.

Emerson made an all-out effort to overthrow slavery with thoughts and action. Many of his works explore the issue of slavery, such as “Self-Reliance” (1841), “Man the Reformer” (1841), “Introductory Lecture on the Times” (1841), “The Poet” (1844), “American Slavery” (1855) and “The Fortune of the Republic” (1863). Some other works, like “The American Scholar,” reveal the spirit of anti-slavery even though they do not talk about slavery directly. He says in his lecture “The Times”: “If I am selfish, then is there slavery, or the effort to establish it, wherever I go. But if I am just, then is there no slavery, let the laws say what they will. For if I treat all men as gods, how to me can there be such a thing as a slave” (164)? Such sentiments reveal his view on slavery. If we want to live in a just and fair society, there should not be “such a thing as a slave.”

Apart from insisting that the slavery system should not exist, Emerson helped to bring in the notion of Emancipation in society. According to Michael Magee, Emerson had already raised the emancipation issue in early essays such as “Self-Reliance” (1841) and “The Poet” (1841); nevertheless, it was then only an issue and a thought. By 1851, the word emancipation received much wider application─the Emancipation. Magee indicates that

the capitalization of "Emancipation" suggests something new, that the abstract concept is also the practical battle; that America, emancipation, and the emancipation of slaves are signifiers in a new vocabulary which would link language use to social action, rhetoric to rituals. Emerson drives home this point by following up with a feverish litany of practical applications. This is partly a call to action, partly an imagining of future possibility, partly a system of analogy. (104)

This is the moment when thoughts are turned into actions. It is in this moment that “the abstract concept is also the practical battle.” Anti-slavery statements and emancipation are not only slogans but actions. In a high degree, the transformation from emancipation to Emancipation, which officially ended slavery in 1863, demonstrates the transcendentalists’ efforts and hope to make their ideals practiced.

As the reform of society begins with the reform of the individual, in the following chapter “The Method of Nature”, I will study not only Emerson’s idea of individualism but also the cultivation of the individual by his interaction with nature through in-depth analysis of Emerson’s works, including Nature, “The American Scholar” and “The Method of Nature.” I will present to the reader how to cultivate oneself through what method uses to enlighten man.

In chapter III, “The Significance of Society,” I will investigate the relationship between the individual and society. Indeed in writings, such as “The American Scholar,” Emerson points out that the individual can cultivate himself through immersion in nature, but at the same time he emphasizes that the individual needs to interact with the society to be a “whole man” (54). In other words, not only nature but also society is both important for an individual─”each fit reproduces the other”(62). In Emerson’s philosophy, immersion in nature is necessary for the cultivation of the individual while involvement with society is at the same time indispensable. In brief, Emerson’s transcendental vision concerns not merely nature but also society. By analyzing his social concern, I hope to unfold Emerson’s view on interrelationship between the individual, nature, and society.

Emerson not only talks about this interrelationship but also practices it. Thus, in the chapter three, I will discuss Emerson’s practice of his convictions. I will study the more detailed social, economic and political situations of his age and investigate his responses to them. There will be three main focuses in this chapter: the historical context of Emerson’s ideas, his concern over the society, and his practice and action. I will try to put Emerson in the historical context and illustrate the interrelation between him and society to demonstrate the close relationship between the individual and society.

The fourth chapter, “The Changed World”, will survey how society reacts to Emerson’s thoughts and actions and how he influences the people and the society in and after the nineteenth century. Emerson’s journals and works as well as his contemporaries will be scrutinized so as to put Emerson in the context of the nineteenth century. Related writings and historical documents will be explored. Speaking of Emerson’s influence on others, Anna Tilden Gannett describes Emerson as the “best of this world,” “a phrase she reserved for the very few individuals to whom she could look for inspiration” (Wider 1). As Anna Tilden Gannett, many people share the same feeling about Emerson. He is a good speaker, writer and philosopher. His intriguing words have inspired his followers and readers. This chapter, then, aims to investigate people’s reactions after being inspired by such a great wise man. I would like to study if their attitudes change, if they begin to act, and if the world changes because of Emerson.

Transcendentalism, with Emerson as its leader, started in the mid 1830s and ended in the late 1840s as a historical movement; its influences whereas have not been limited by time: “its ripples continue to spread through American culture” (Brickman). Emerson, through his life, devotes himself to promoting Transcendentalism and carrying out his ideals. He advocates that immersion in nature and social concern are not opposed to each other; on the contrary, they shore up each other and form two essential parts of his transcendental vision. In a word, only by dedicating ourselves to both can we live a complete life and ameliorate society as a whole.

Working Bibliography

Abrams, M. H.. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace College Publisher, 1999.

Brickman, Martin. “An Overview of American Transcendentalism”. American Transcendental Web.


Cayton, Mary Kupiec. “The Prisonhouse of Emerson.” American Quarterly 40.1 (1991): 110-118. JSTOR. 5 Jan. 2006


Crain, Caleb. American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation. London: Yale University Press, 1894.

Duncan, Jeffrey L. The Power and Form of Emerson’s Thought. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1973.

Emerson, Edward Waldo. Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909.

Guthrie, James R. Above Time: Emerson's & Thoreau's Temporal Revolutions. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

Hign, Peter B. An Outline of American Literature. London and New York: Longman, 1986.

Harmon, William, and C. Hugh, Harmon. A Handbook to Literature.7th ed. N.Y.: Prentice-Hall, 1996.

Jackson, Holbrook. Dreamers of Dreams: The Rise and Fall of nineteenth Century Idealism. Michigan: Michigan Scholarly Press, 1971.

Magee, Michael. “Emerson's Emancipation Proclamations.Raritan 20.4 (2001): 96-116. ASP. 5 Jan. 2006 <http://search.epnet.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db


Marr, David. American Worlds Since Emerson. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Mitchell, Charles E. Individualism and Its Discontents: Appropriations of Emerson. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Newfield, Christopher. The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Porte, Joel. Emerson: Essays and Lectures. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1983.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire: a Biography. Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1996.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin Books, 1999

Ruttenburg, Nancy. Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship. California: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Portrait of a Balanced Soul. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Wider, Sarah Ann. The Critical Reception of Emerson: Unsetting All Things. New York: Camden House, 2000

Wittenberg, David. Philosophy, Revision, Critique: Rereading Practices in Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Emerson. California: Stanford University Press, 2001.

1 Joel Porte, ed. Emerson: Essays and Lectures. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1983. Hereafter all citations of Emerson’s works are from this series. Page numbers will be put in parentheses after them.

2 “Man” in this thesis refers to a common people, while the word “individual” is used to emphasize the uniqueness of each man.

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