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Emerson and Thoreau on a Satisfactory Life

In these days of fear and uncertainty, we hear a lot of talk about character, virtue, and integrity. With the financial strains impacting Consumer America, it seems that selfreliance and austerity are once again in vogue and necessity. But in the 19th century, America birthed two apostles of these attributes- Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The former gave us a portrait of the man who achieves Self Reliance, and Thoreau showed us how this man looks and acts in real life. I will now proceed to examine the main tenets of each man’s moral philosophy. Emerson in “The American Scholar” begins by addressing a societal fable regarding Man which contends that to get a sense of the full-orbed Man is impossible, since each gift, talent, or calling is parceled out among men. “The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,- a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.” This is the cornerstone of the Emersonian thought and a satisfactory life; that each man is capable of and called to Self Reliance. Quoting Emerson again: “The one thing in the world of value, is, the active soul,-the soul, free, sovereign, active. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although in almost men, obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates.” Once man is freed of the shackles of societal or traditional limitations, he is able to actualize the spark of divinity. And as man realizes his freedom in self reliance, Emerson says in the

essay “Self-Reliance” that this “must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men.” Putting self reliance into action turns on trusting yourself above all others. Again from “Self-Reliance”, Emerson says “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 the second key component of a satisfactory life, and will lead a man to cast aside the restraints of consistency and conformity; nor will he be concerned with the opinions of other people or institutions. The freed soul will live in the present, and will be unconcerned with the accumulation of property. Finally, Emerson introduces us in “The Poet” to a third principle component of the satisfactory life. A wonderful truism from this work is “there is no fact of nature which does not carry the whole sense of nature.” This is in harmony with his opinion of the man, but as “the world being thus put under the mind for verb and noun, the poet is he who can articulate it” Since we need the poet to be our interpreter of the world, it is essential that we regard the Poet’s work highly, even if we do not see as clearly as He. Henry David Thoreau, after receiving his education at Harvard, started his “working” life as a teacher. In 1842, he went to work as a handyman for Emerson, which was the start of his career fixing American culture and mores. Only time and further study will resolve this, but I am fascinated by the idea of Thoreau working for Emerson. It is my impression that besides the obvious quality of conversation that must have occurred between these two men and others, there was a dynamic which saw Emerson the Academic working out his philosophies through the

truly Self Reliant man Thoreau. There was of course so much more, but let us now proceed to examine how Thoreau puts theory into practice. The second sentence of “Resistance to Civil Government” states: ““That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” That is saying two things- that man is capable of self government, and that there is a continuum of growth or evolution which will result in the ultimate end of the necessity for government. Here we have Thoreau’s affirmation of Emerson’s man self-actualized and self reliant, still the critical core component of the satisfactory life. Further along in this same work, Thoreau says “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” This is the point at which he captures the attention of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who seeing evil or injustice know that action must be taken, but influenced by the teachings of Jesus, Socrates, and others, do not use evil to overcome evil. Thoreau goes on to say that “it is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” The satisfactory life of the Self Reliant man places virtue and justice above obedience to man-made laws and governmental structures. So now, the third leg of the satisfactory stool is fashioned by the handyman Thoreau. Speaking of slavery in his home state and country, he blasts “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.” Going on he says “I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact, that the country so overrun” (by a foreign government) “is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”

The philosophical structure of Emersonian thought is fully articulated by action, “ a wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.” So Satisfactory Man is self-governing, placing justice above all, and willing to put his belief into practice, regardless of the cost. But then, the truly sublime statement that in “Resistance to Civil Government” brings philosophical truth into concrete reality is “if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.” Men like Gandhi and M.L. King took this seriously, as should all.