Essay 2

Submitted By Stephsilva1994
Words: 2083
Pages: 9

Stephanie Silva
ENGL 2123A
Dr. Watson
9 March 2015
A Battle: Self versus Society Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” This famous quote reflects the tension felt between the individual and society for some of the later Romantic writers and is apparent in their work. Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau firmly believed that the individual should separate from society’s norms and institutions. Margaret Fuller, who was also a transcendentalist, had radical beliefs about the roles of women and desired for there to be drastic change in women’s rights. Finally, Walt Whitman, who wrote in free verse about topics that no one else was writing about, believed in equality and pushed for democracy and individualism. Writing in the Nineteenth Century, Romantics such as Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Whitman had radical beliefs about the individual’s role in society for their time period. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a catalyst for thought and philosophy in the Nineteenth Century because he sparked the transcendentalist movement. It is because of this that he is “arguably the most influential American writer” of the eighteen hundreds, and many other writers and thinkers during the time “sought to come to terms” with him (Baym 211). According to Dr. Watson in her lecture titled “Emerson and Transcendentalism,” Transcendentalism was a religious, philosophical, and literary movement which rejected Enlightenment empiricism and the thoughts of John Locke (Watson 17 Feb 2015). Transcendentalists celebrated the self, individualism, consciousness, and Neoplatonism, which stems from a Puritan tradition (Ruland 118). First published in 1841 in Essays, Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is a radical piece of literature which showcases his views about the individual in society. In this essay, Emerson expresses “a central doctrine: divinity [existing] intimately in each natural fact, [and] in each individual self” (Ruland 120). Emerson proposes that society seeks conformity, but in order to be a self-reliant individual, one must be an inconsistent nonconformist:
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is an aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs. Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. (Baym 271)
Emerson repeats the words “I must be myself” in order to emphasize the importance of individuality even when society seeks to produce puppets (Baym 280). He also stresses the importance of diligently working alone in order to improve the world around him. Emerson’s desire in “Self-Reliance” is for man to shape society, not for society to shape man. One of the most influential pieces of literature that Ralph Waldo Emerson composed is Nature. This book, which was published anonymously in 1836, became somewhat of a manifesto among the transcendentalists. It received praise from many Europeans, but because of the unconventional ideas that are expressed in it, Nature was unpopular in America at the time (Baym 212). In Nature, Emerson challenges the accepted enlightenment views and declares that nature speaks “directly to the self, [and] to the individual mind and soul” (Ruland 119). In the first chapter of Nature, which is cleverly titled, “Nature,” Emerson describes his experience and how it makes him feel:
Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. (Baym 217)
Throughout the book, Emerson discusses the importance of…