Comparison Essay on Emerson and Thoreau


Ralph Waldo Emerson was a visionary in his time. He believed in Transcendentalism and lived his life telling others how to find their true self. Through his club, the Transcendental Club, he met with others of like minds and helped them on their journey as well. One such person was Henry David Thoreau. After a personal tragedy, Thoreau would take Emerson’s words to heart and set out to prove it could be done. Although Emerson was a great talker with many words on how to find one’s true self, we see how Thoreau’s actions spoke volumes and how he put Emerson’s words into actual practice through his detailed journey of self-discovery in “Walden”; he told of his time in nature, how he was self-reliant, and his implementation of the three influences heralded by Emerson.

One of the ways Thoreau lived what Emerson said was by getting back to nature. Emerson believed and taught that in order to be reborn, one must go through nature to find themselves. Once we were immersed in nature, we could strip ourselves down, see nature through the eyes of a child, shed our earthly bodies and become our soul, or true self. In contrast with what he said, Emerson never emerged himself in nature. Through his writings, the respect for nature is present, but not the wonderment of nature that is found in Thoreau’s works. Thoreau did what Emerson had spoken of doing. His accounts in “Walden” tell how he lived in the woods and fully immersed himself in nature. Some days he would simply lose himself in nature and marvel at the wonderment he saw before him. He tells many occasions of lessons he learned through nature just by being present within it. Many of these nature encounters are written with a childlike wonderment of what was seen and learned. Emerson talked about getting back to nature and the importance of doing so while Thoreau lived it, learned from it, and wrote about. 

Emerson believed that each person held the answers within themselves if they would only listen to themselves. This concept of self-reliance encouraged them to turn away from what everyone else said or did, shun society, and listen to our true inner self. He taught how one should not care about what other thought, but to follow your own instincts. If we look at Emerson’s life, we can see irony in this. Whereas he may not have followed society in form, he also did not listen to his own thoughts and teachings enough to put them into practice. Again, we see where Thoreau put Emerson’s words into practice. He left everything, built his own house in the woods away from society, learned how to grow and make his own food, and fully depended upon himself for survival. In contrast, Emerson never left his home, fully shunned society, thereby never becoming fully self-reliant. 

Emerson also believed that every scholar should have three influences. First, nature. This importance has already been discussed earlier. To paraphrase, by studying nature, we were essentially studying and getting to know ourselves. Second, books. Emerson and Thoreau were both highly educated graduates from Harvard. Emerson did caution that one should not get caught up in the just the past things learned from books. Furthermore, he encouraged people to write and create new books. Lastly, life experiences. Again, he is telling how one should be self-reliant and do things for themselves. Similar to this thought was Emerson’s idea of Man Thinking vs Thinking Man. Here he talked about man having singular skills and not being fully self-reliant due to being so specialized and lacking in other skills. This was largely aimed at other scholars who were well educated but lacked many life skills. Once again, although Emerson and Thoreau were both scholars themselves, we never hear of any life skills or manual work performed by Emerson. On the other hand, Thoreau lived a variety of life experiences and wrote of his many learned skills. Besides being able to read and write, he wrote telling of how he built his house, learned to grow his food, learned different ways to cook, and many more.  

From all this, we can ascertain the similarities as well as the differences between Emerson and Thoreau. Both men were Harvard scholars as well as Transcendentalists. Emerson was the one who pushed Thoreau and helped him become the man he was. They favored many of the same concepts born of Transcendentalism, with some variations not relevant here. What is relevant however, are the differences between Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson was a prolific man of words. Where he failed was in his actions. It is often easy to tell one how best to act, but another altogether to follow those actions oneself. This is one of the main differences between Emerson and Thoreau. Thoreau took the teachings, ideas, and theories of Emerson and Transcendentalism and applied them to his life. As a result, Thoreau lived the life Emerson only spoke of. Emerson spoke of the importance of nature, shunning society, and being self-reliant and yet he never changed how the core of how he lived. Sure, he made small changes and adapted certain aspects of his life, but he never truly immersed himself in what he taught. He may have seen himself as living by the three influences, but his actions spoke otherwise. As a result, Thoreau’s actions spoke louder than the words of Emerson.

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