Reflection on Emerson & Thoreau

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Editor’s Note: This post has been written by Samantha Little, a student in Dr. White’s American Literature class at Lewis University.  Dr. White’s students were to submit some of their public posts for the class to the Jet Fuel Review Blog as an assignment. Samantha has written a reflection on two works by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Disobedience”

In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson says, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men—that is genius” (Emerson 533). This idea suggests that you should “trust thyself,” as well as trust your thoughts and intuition (Emerson 534). Many people do not speak what is on their mind in fear of what others may think about what they have to say and Emerson sees this as a problem. Although you may not think so, but you are unique and have genius thoughts and you need to trust yourself enough to sound these thoughts because that is the only way they will be heard and the only way that people will recognize your genius. Someone who is able to voice their opinion and thoughts should value themselves greatly and see themselves as equal.
Emerson places much more emphasis on the individual rather than society as a whole and places individuals higher up than society. Each individual is created by God to be unique and every individual has its place in the world. We also see this idea in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Whitman displays the idea of diversity while showing how everybody is equal and has their place in the world. Emerson also comments on the idea of non-conformity. He says that “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (Emerson 535). In order to really get your thoughts together, one must get away from society because society automatically makes one conform and not have his or her own thoughts. Society may often tell people what to think about certain things, especially when it comes to the government. It is difficult for one to have his or her own thoughts when conforming to society because when someone is conforming, they really aren’t having their own ideas. He finds it extremely scary that people trust society and the government before trusting their own intuition.
Thoreau shares many similar ideas with Emerson. In “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau also explores the idea of non-conformity, especially not conforming to a government that imposes on the people. Thoreau states, “Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves” (Thoreau 829-830). Not only does the government impose on people and their thoughts, but it also treats people unjustly, especially slaves. In order for the government to get better, people must break away from it. Thoreau states, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government” (Thoreau 830). I believe that Thoreau believes in having a government, just not a government that imposes on its people. Thoreau believes that everyone should put in their word in order for the government to be a “corporation with a conscience” (Thoreau 830). If people do not begin to do this, the government will continue to abuse its people and things will never get better. He also incorporates the idea that government has mechanized its people to be like it and the people need to get back in touch with nature. This is similar to the idea that Emerson has about breaking away from society.
“Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson and “Resistance to Civil Government” by Henry David Thoreau both comment on the idea of non-conformity as well as individualism. This idea of individualism really plays into the idea of democracy in the United States. People have the right to speak what is on their mind and both of these writers feel that when people do that, they are both genius and wise.

— Samantha Little

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