Implementing Emerson’s Ideas In Walden By Henry David Thoreau
Just four years before Henry David Thoreau started his Walden project, his very good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson had written an essay called Self-Reliance. It is no coincidence that Thoreau’s Walden takes Emerson’s idea of self-reliance and implements it into his own writing. The essay “Self-Reliance,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson and “Economy” from Walden, by Henry David Thoreau discuss the idea of self-reliance and being non-conforming to society to live a better life. Thoreau’s novel is based on Emerson’s basic tenet of self-reliance; however, Thoreau takes some aspects of self-reliance and tests them in real-life. Both Emerson and Thoreau use self-reliance to show how to achieve true morality and happiness. Although Thoreau is heavily influenced by Emerson, he does interpret some things differently such as Nature; he thinks of Nature as a provider while Emerson views Nature as a direct connection to God.
A huge part of “Self-Reliance,” by Emerson is the idea of non-conformity. Emerson was a transcendentalist, which means he is against the idea of conforming to society and believes society is the root cause of immorality. To be truly moral it is necessary to live by one’s own ideas. Emerson states “a man must be a nonconformist,” because by adopting the social standards of society one loses his manhood and independence. A man “who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness”. Emerson believes one must test the ideas of goodness others follow and test it with one’s own definition of ‘good’ before adopting it instead of blindly following others. To be a man of great honor, it is important to do good while not conforming to the definition of ‘good’ formed by the flawed society. Emerson also rejects the idea of charity for it is a flawed idea of society. He believes doing charity work to appear as a “good person” is “a wicked Dollar which by and by he shall have the manhood to withhold”. People need to rely on themselves to do charity and should not be motivated by their own appearance to others — which goes against the idea of self-reliance. Thoreau agrees with the idea that goodness should come from within and not from the influences of society. He states that people praise philanthropy which corrupts the basic idea of it. We do it out of “our selfishness” to be praised by society instead of for ourselves which makes giving “greatly overrated” because we, as a society “overate it”.
Another part of self-reliance is achieving happiness by being independent and not through gaining material objects. Emerson believes the way to be “happy and relieved” is by working hard and doing one’s best at a goal one is trying to meet instead of being dependent on others to do the job for one. Emerson also makes a metaphor saying “society is a joint-stock company” and though it does secure “bread to each shareholder,” it takes away the members’ freedom and culture. People in society just work to improve society and get their daily bread but in doing so they lose their time in which they could be bettering themselves, leading to their contentment. Thoreau says there are two ways to achieve happiness: by fulfilling one’s desire, or by cutting down desire. Thoreau “went to the woods” to “live deliberately” because he didn’t want to regret that he hadn’t lived life to his fullest when “he came to die”. He took Emerson’s theory on how to be happy and experienced it in life which made him understand living with the “essential facts of life” gave him the freedom to truly live happily without being bound by societal norms. The “essential facts of life” refers to material things such as food, water, and shelter, but it also refers to having less desire for the material objects. He wanted to “suck out all the marrow of life” like how the marrow of a bone has all the nutrients. Thoreau lived off the basic “nutrients” but absorbed it all to live life freely and happily while not sacrificing a healthy life in the process. Both Thoreau’s and Emerson’s ideas express the way of achieving happiness through self-reliance.
While Thoreau is inspired by Emerson in many ways, they do have different interpretations of some ideas—Nature. Emerson views Nature as a direct connection to truth and God. He argues that before, people compared Nature and God as the same and believed, like them, we all should “enjoy an original relation to the universe”. He refers to how the Greeks and Romans directly linked natural forces to God, but during his time people rely on ideas of earlier generations and institutions instead of directly interpreting the source of all knowledge. By having a direct relation with Nature, Emerson believes one would have a better understanding of and a deeper connection with God and be more self-reliant. Instead of connecting Nature to God, Thoreau sees it as a part of him that provides all. Thoreau writes he experienced that “the most sweet…tender… and encouraging society may be found in any natural object”. He believes that the perfect society can be found in Nature itself. This is because Nature provides all necessities — food, water, shelter, and fuel — but also because it provides him a home. He is surrounded by Nature which is full of beauty and knowledge which one can observe. Therefore, while Emerson sees Nature as a way to directly connect to the Universe and God, Thoreau views Nature as a part of him that provides him the necessities and contains the knowledge and beauty for him to observe and interpret by himself.
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