Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Themes and Colors
Transcendentalism Theme Icon
Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness  Theme Icon
Anti-Enlightenment Ideas and American Culture Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
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Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the central figures associated with the American philosophical and literary movement known as transcendentalism. Transcendentalism thrived during the late 1830s to the 1840s in the US and originated with a group of thinkers in New England that included Emerson. The transcendentalists believed that the US needed reformation in its religion, arts, higher education, and culture. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is one of the most important statements of transcendentalist beliefs and how…

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Nonconformity, Morality, and Individual Greatness

In keeping with his transcendentalist beliefs, Emerson was skeptical of forces that pushed the individual to conform to society. Emerson’s rejection of society (including any of its established institutions) as a source of truth and morality fit into a broader historical moment occurring in America at the time when Emerson was writing (in the 1830s and 1840s). The Second Great Awakening, a religious revival movement, rejected many of the faiths settlers had brought with…

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Anti-Enlightenment Ideas and American Culture

Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance” in 1841. The United States had won the Revolutionary War only 65 years earlier, and the Constitution had existed for just 52 years. In other words, the United States was still a very young nation, and Emerson shared with many other American writers and thinkers a preoccupation with finding and creating a uniquely American culture, one that was not so dependent upon Europe. Most thinkers of the earlier years of the United…

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Emerson and other transcendentalists believed that nature—rather than society, institutions, or the Church—is the ultimate source of truth about the self, God, and existence. As Emerson put it in another essay he wrote, “The Foregoing generations beheld God and Nature face to face; we—through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe.” In this quote, Emerson is saying that, while previous generations connected directly to God and…

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