Understanding Transcendentalism

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Essay/Term paper: Transcendentalism

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Philosophy

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Transcendentalism is the philosophy that reality cannot be known and the
divine is the guiding principle in man. Transcendentalism says that the way
to god is through yourself; your inner thoughts lead you to a spiritual
reality. Transcendentalism is made up of four main ideas: idealism,
optimism, religion, and individualism. In Emerson’s essay "Self Reliance,"
he expresses his optimistic faith in the power of individual achievement and
originality. He also considered the overarching need to discover and develop
a relationship with nature and with god. I agree with Emerson’s ideas that
"envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide," "that whoso would be a man must be
a nonconformist," and "a man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart
into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise,
shall give him no peace."
I agree with Emerson’s idea that "envy is ignorance; imitation is
suicide." This means that you should be yourself and not try to be like
someone who you are not. Envying someone else for what they are wearing is
just plain out being ignorant; imitating someone is killing your
individualism. You need to do things for yourself and not for anyone else.
For example, one time I was talking to this kid who had those big raver pants
on, he said he hated wearing them, so I asked him why he was wearing them and
he said that he was going to a rave that night and he just wanted to fit in
with all the people there. He was imitating other people who go to raves
just to be cool and conform to their style of dressing. You need to act
yourself and not try to be someone you are not.
I agree with Emerson’s idea that "a man is relieved and gay when he has
put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done
otherwise, shall give him no peace." This means that when a man has tried as
hard as he can and has put every last effort into his work, he is relieved
and satisfied with what he has accomplished. For an example, I had a history
project to do and I have been working on it diligently on it for the last
week. The day I finished it and turned it in I felt proud of myself and
relieved that it was finally done it. When a man has done his best, he
should be proud of what he has done.
I agree with Emerson’s idea, "whoso would be a man must be a
nonconformist." This means that if you’re a man you should not conform to
what everybody else is doing but to do what you feel is right. You don’t
have to conform to what everyone is doing to fit in. If you are man enough
you would realize that you shouldn’t conform to everyone, you would believe
that everyone should be unique in his or her own diverse individualistic way.
For example, the music I listen to isn’t something you can get into right
away; it took many years to actually find these bands and start listening to
them. It’s not very common that people listen to anarcho punk and have the
beliefs that I do. Anarcho punk goes together very well with Emerson’s
individualism ideas and people not conforming to society. If you conform to
what everyone does you are just another victim of how society thinks.
Everyone can’t conform to the same ideas, otherwise this world would be
In conclusion, Emerson’s ideas have helped shape the world today, it has
made people open up their eyes to see that not everybody thinks exactly the
same. Everyone has their own uniqueness and should express that rather than
trying to be someone who you are not. You must do your best to create your
own individual opinions, and beliefs. Not two people are exactly the same
and it should be that way. Diversity allows people to think open-minded. If
you are close-minded you are being purely ignorant and not opening your eyes
to reality. 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quick Facts

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Poet , Philosopher , Journalist
Birth Date
May 25 , 1803
Death Date
April 27 , 1882
Boston Public Latin School , Harvard Divinity School , Harvard University
Place of Birth
Boston , Massachusetts
Place of Death
Concord , Massachusetts
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“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
“The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.”
“Nature never hurries: atom by atom, little by little, she achieves her work.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography

Poet, Philosopher, Journalist (1803–1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American Transcendentalist poet, philosopher and essayist during the 19th century. One of his best-known essays is “Self-Reliance.”


Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1821, he took over as director of his brother’s school for girls. In 1823, he wrote the poem "Good-Bye.” In 1832, he became a Transcendentalist, leading to the later essays "Self-Reliance" and "The American Scholar." Emerson continued to write and lecture into the late 1870s. He died on April 27, 1882, in Concord, Massachusetts.

Early Life and Education

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the son of William and Ruth (Haskins) Emerson; his father was a clergyman, as many of his male ancestors had been. He attended the Boston Latin School, followed by Harvard University (from which he graduated in 1821) and the Harvard School of Divinity. He was licensed as a minister in 1826 and ordained to the Unitarian church in 1829.

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Emerson married Ellen Tucker in 1829. When she died of tuberculosis in 1831, he was grief-stricken. Her death, added to his own recent crisis of faith, caused him to resign from the clergy.

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Travel and Writing

In 1832 Emerson traveled to Europe, where he met with literary figures Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. When he returned home in 1833, he began to lecture on topics of spiritual experience and ethical living. He moved to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1834 and married Lydia Jackson in 1835.

Emerson’s early preaching had often touched on the personal nature of spirituality. Now he found kindred spirits in a circle of writers and thinkers who lived in Concord, including Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau and Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott).

American Transcendentalism

In the 1830s Emerson gave lectures that he afterward published in essay form. These essays, particularly “Nature” (1836), embodied his newly developed philosophy. “The American Scholar,” based on a lecture that he gave in 1837, encouraged American authors to find their own style instead of imitating their foreign predecessors.

Emerson became known as the central figure of his literary and philosophical group, now known as the American Transcendentalists. These writers shared a key belief that each individual could transcend, or move beyond, the physical world of the senses into deeper spiritual experience through free will and intuition. In this school of thought, God was not remote and unknowable; believers understood God and themselves by looking into their own souls and by feeling their own connection to nature.

The 1840s were productive years for Emerson. He founded and co-edited the literary magazine The Dial, and he published two volumes of essays in 1841 and 1844. Some of the essays, including “Self-Reliance,” “Friendship” and “Experience,” number among his best-known works. His four children, two sons and two daughters, were born in the 1840s.

Later Work and Life

Emerson’s later work, such as The Conduct of Life (1860), favored a more moderate balance between individual nonconformity and broader societal concerns. He advocated for the abolition of slavery and continued to lecture across the country throughout the 1860s.

By the 1870s the aging Emerson was known as “the sage of Concord.” Despite his failing health, he continued to write, publishing Society and Solitude in 1870 and a poetry collection titled Parnassus in 1874.

Emerson died on April 27, 1882, in Concord. His beliefs and his idealism were strong influences on the work of his protégé Henry David Thoreau and his contemporary Walt Whitman, as well as numerous others. His writings are considered major documents of 19th-century American literature, religion and thought.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography


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