Key Ideas Of Transcendentalism Essay

Ralph Waldo Emerson is the Top Dog of Transcendentalism. The Godfather. The Big Cheese. The biggest, oldest, most huggable tree in the forest, if you're starting to think like a Transcendentalist. The whole movement got going largely because of his efforts. He was the son of a Unitarian minister who himself became ordained as a Unitarian minister, until he got disgruntled with Unitarianism.

But that doesn't mean he turned his back on the spiritual world. Emerson wanted us to be better in touch with our inner selves, God, and nature. He was instrumental in elaborating some of the most important Transcendentalist concepts in essays and books like "Self-Reliance" and "Nature."

And don't forget, this guy was also a founding member of the Transcendental Club, which was the hub of Transcendentalist thinkers and writers beginning in 1836. Yup, that's where to find Waldo.


In this 1841 essay, Emerson argues that we need to learn to be a lot more individualistic—yep, you guessed it: rely on ourselves. That doesn't just mean cooking our own meals and doing our laundry instead of getting Mom to do it—it's about freeing ourselves from the fetters of social convention and the opinions of others.

Only by following our own individual path and our own inner instinct will we be able to distinguish truth from falsehood and good from evil. And an added bonus is that we'll be much happier for it. Sweet!

Emerson's essay exemplifies the Transcendentalist virtue of individualism. These guys and gals really believed that folks have to think for themselves. And in "Self-Reliance," Emerson shows us exactly why that's so important.


Is it a book? Is it an essay? It's both, naturally! (Har har.) Emerson's, um, book-length essay is all about—yes, guessed again!—the power of nature. And it sure as dandelions isn't just about green grass and blue skies. Nature can actually lead us to God, and to our true selves.

Emerson's essay was way influential (not to mention controversial) when it was first published. So much so that it became one of the founding documents of the Transcendental Club, which was founded the same year. The essay would also have a huge influence on Henry David Thoreau, who read it as an undergrad at Harvard. And the tree began to sprout!

Chew on This

In "Self-Reliance," Emerson advises us to trust ourselves. After all, it's the only way to achieve self-reliance. If all the greats did it, he said, then so can you!

Moving onto "Nature," where Emerson argues that everything is connected. Beauty, he even says (thinking of the sunset sort of beauty), is "one expression for the universe." And you better believe it's an expression that unites us all when we ooh-and-ahh as the sun goes down.

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