Emerson/Thoreau

I found the Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau readings to be both difficult and rewarding. Each of the excerpts from their journals, though short, are not at first easy to comprehend, and most took me several times to interpret. However, once interpreted, these obscure ideologies present some interesting perspectives and reveal some of the standards of thought for both renowned writers.

One such Emerson excerpt that stood out to me was this: “It is very hard to be simple enough to be good.” Emerson is arguably the founder or forefather of the philosophical school of thought know as transcendentalism (http://www.biography.com/people/ralph-waldo-emerson-9287153?page=1), a group who believed in transcending the physical world of the senses and embodying deep spirituality through free will and intuition. An ardent abolitionist, Emerson was characterized by true selfless abstention and the belief that “good” is constituted by morality, ethics, and a modest, ascetic lifestyle. In this excerpt regarding Emerson’s constitution of “goodness”, I think Emerson means to convey that it is difficult to live a modest, ascetic life, which he considers to be “good”, while at the same time still maintaining ones own happiness. For instance, being modest or humble requires you to live a life within or even slightly below your means. In doing so, one may be considered “good” by Emerson’s standards, but may not be able to achieve happiness, and such is the difficulty in being “simple enough to be good”.

The Thoreau excerpt that really stood out to me was this: “What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering book.” I felt that this was a very powerful and significant quote. Being Emerson’s predecessor in the transcendentalist movement, Thoreau shared, and expanded on the same free-thinking and intuitive logic as Emerson. In this excerpt, Thoreau questions the practices of “standardized” education, for lack of a better term. In describing education as making a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering book, Thoreau means to convey that books are written by and individual, and meant to be individually interpreted by other individuals. However, this is not the case for most practices of education. What we are taught, more often than not, is one such basic and commonly accepted interpretation of literature. This quote directly relates to Emerson’s ideology in his quote that: “The things taught in colleges and schools are not an education, but the means of education”. These two beliefs from both writers characterize the free-thinking ideology of transcendentalism, in that true education comes from freedom of thought, questioning what you are taught, and ones own intuitive interpretations.

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One Response to Emerson/Thoreau

  1. klucenko says:

    I like these lines about the thinking/writing process from Thoreau: “Associate reverently and as much as you can with your loftiest thoughts. Each thought that is welcomed and recorded is a nest egg, by the side of which more will be laid. Thoughts accidentally thrown together become a frame in which more will be developed and exhibited.” Obscurely prophetic directives about creativity. I appreciate what he suggests here about the generative and accumulative power of seemingly-random associations. He’s a man after my own heart. Freewrite! Don’t edit yourself–just associate accidentally and “thought [will] begat thought.”

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