Fairview High School
“Self-Reliance” and “Civil Disobedience”
Transcendentalism is a philosophy that started in the late eighteenth century that stressed equality, intuition, nature, self-reliance, social responsibility, and the power of the individual. This new group of ideas proved to be very influential then and is still inspiring in today’s modern society. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two of the most influential Transcendental writers of that era. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” both suggested social responsibility, intuition, and non-conformity to society.
In Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” social responsibility is important. The meaning behind this is that there is a time in every man’s life when he will finally realize that he has a purpose, a destiny, and the responsibility to achieve goals as long as he can tap into his spiritual nature. Emerson states, “The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone,” which references the belief of individualism and trust in one’s intuition. Emerson notes that famous men and women are often misunderstood simply because of their opinions, ideas, and thoughts; however, this misunderstanding is why they are so respected. One large point in “Self-Reliance” is that humans should not conform to society, but be independent in mind. Furthermore, since Transcendentalists believe that the world is equipped to remove one’s individual imagination and thought, Emerson stresses that one should connect with nature to maintain peace of mind and individual mentality.
Similar to “Self-Reliance,” Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” shares the same philosophical ideas. Social responsibility is often encouraged and is used to describe how all men have the inherent responsibility to bring forth justice to those who need it. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau meets a man while serving time in prison who has been locked away for burning down a barn. Even so, Thoreau sees his cellmate as an honest man by simply trusting his own intuition. Furthermore, Thoreau writes, “That government is best which governs least,” which is based on the belief that people should not conform to society but stay independent and embrace their own beliefs, goals, values, and morals.
Both “Self-Reliance” and “Civil Disobedience” are relevant in modern society because they discourage conformity, which is a big problem in the world today. Humans tend to lean with the majority, but should be taught to stand their ground. Both essays also mention the government and the problems involved in it. Since they were written, government has not improved; it may have even worsened. Government is best when it governs least—that perspective should still be applied to today’s government. Now, the government tries to constantly control every aspect of everyone’s life, but like Thoreau states, it should allow its people to decide major issues.
It is very easy to see why Transcendentalism was so influential. Both Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” stressed social responsibility, intuition, and individualism. These men were very respected then and are still very well known today as great writers, inspiring civil rights leaders and influential minds. Both “Self-Reliance” and “Civil Disobedience” were insightful and definitely gave many people new ideas about nature and life itself.