Comparing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau

1 January 2017

In many works of literature, authors express their viewpoints on society and times in which they live. In the essay “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau, the authors speak out against conformity and materialism in society. Both were romanticism authors during the 1800s. They focused on simplicity and individuality. Both writings can advise teenagers today on the importance of non-conformity and the value of rejecting materialism.

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In “Self Reliance”, Emerson discusses being one’s own person and not allowing society to mold someone like a piece of clay; “Trust thyself” are the exact words he used. Trusting oneself means it is okay to be different if one wants or chooses to be different. It means that one does not have to follow the “bad” crowd just because everyone else may be choosing to do so. One must know that if they have a good idea and if they believe in that idea–even if it is different from the norm of society–some people will follow.

Emerson also says, “Whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist. ” This means that to be a true and real person, one must stand up for what they believe in and not allow themselves to be completely changed by society. One must not conform to ways that will cause them to be someone or something outside of their own desires. In the beginning of his writing, Emerson gives us a definition of what he believes defines genius: “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. ’

This is his way of saying that every person should know that doing what one thinks is right is the best decision—for him/herself. Every educated person does not conform to society if they do not think that society is going in the right path. Emerson also says that people who have good ideas are misunderstood. In his statement, “To be great is to be misunderstood”, Emerson is saying that most people who had great ideas in history were misjudged because their ideas were not along with the norms of society’s ideas. Therefore, the societal conformists thought that their ideas were wrong.

Emerson gives reasons as to why most people conform to society and try to be the same. He says, “The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency”–meaning that people might follow society because that is what they are used to doing. They are only doing what they saw happening when they were younger. Their parents and other adults probably did the same thing that most people do today—conform. Emerson disputes this reason in his statement by saying, “But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?

It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone”. Relying on the past could be problematic when someone questions things since most were probably brought up a certain way and are used to doing things the same way, but never really knew a good reason why to conform. In “Walden”, Thoreau explains how having less material things can simply your life. He says, “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things” In saying this, he means to own your items and do not let them own you.

Thoreau thinks that people have the desire to own things, thus, causing them to have to use all of their time working to own said things. Working all the time means that one can not do the things that one wants to, and that the items that one desires ends up owning them. Through this statement, Thoreau is basically saying that having all these things such as cell phones, iPods, laptops, and televisions are distracting people from the more important things in life such as family, health, and well-being. One of Thoreau’s famous quotes is, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! ” This means to make ones’ life as simple as possible.

He thinks that the poor are the fortunate ones since they have the least to look after and worry about while the rich have so much to look after that they do not have time for themselves. Living a simple life enables one to be free of commitment and obligations. One only has to worry about one’s self. Both Emerson and Thoreau believe that following one’s own path in life is the best way to go. They believe that being oneself and having a simple life is the best life. Both lessons can be relevant in today’s society by looking at the rural areas that still exist in the United States.

Some of these areas still follow the principle of a simple and non-materialistic life. Their lives are not filled with technology and other things that distract most people from life. Young people (myself included), can take away much from Emerson’s and Thoreau’s writings. I could focus on more important things in life rather than wasting lots of time on unnecessary technology such as Facebook and Twitter. We could use technology under moderation and make sure that those things do not take up more time than necessary in our lives.

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