The Difference in the Philosophies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau

Of all the writers and philosophers who are considered to be transcendentalists, two of the most prevalent are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Their works have been pondered for over 150 years. It is evident that Emerson is fundamentally a transcendentalist; however Emerson is not as much of a transcendentalist as Thoreau.

Emerson believes in a strong connection to nature, focused on an “oversoul,” a single soul which is possessed by all life, as well as God himself, therefore portraying humans as “divine”.

Emerson also believes that humans must poses a personal connection with God as opposed to a secondhand hand connection to God through an external entity. Thoreau believes in a much deeper spiritual connection to nature through disconnecting oneself from society, enabling that person to experience enlightening introspection.

Emerson’s father died of tuberculosis when Emerson was only 8, and as a result Emerson’s aunt Mary Moody Emerson took over as a father figure. Moody Emerson pushed Emerson to become a Unitarian minister against his own will, and as a result Emerson resented institutionalized religion, believing it to be against human nature.

These beliefs pushed Emerson to eventually leave the ministry and become a speaker. Emerson’s best known speech was his “Divinity-School Address,” in which he declared religious truth as “an institution. It cannot be received at secondhand” (Beers).

Thoreau was considered at his time to be a waste of education, opportunity, and prosperity. After experiencing failure in practically every aspect of his life, Thoreau retreats to Walden Pond, a secluded location in the forest, where he would build a cabin and live there for almost two years.

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The experiment at Walden was successful in revealing to Thoreau what his philosophies and theologies were, especially in a time in Thoreau’s life where he did not know what his purpose in life was. Thoreau believed that one must disconnect oneself completely from society, declaring “nonconformity is the best way to live,” and that one must poses a deep and spiritual connection to nature through direct contact and observation (Beers).

Moody Emerson raised Emerson to be a minister, just as the 8 generations of Emersons had before him; but, Emerson was reluctant to pursue the destiny that was set out before him, and his faith was rocked to the core by the death of his wife. A true transcendentalist would have had more respect for such events; however the death of Emerson’s wife destroyed his faith in institutionalized religion. Emerson believed that an individual should have a more personal relationship with God, and the view that “religious truth is an institution that shouldn’t be received at second hand.” This was undoubtedly related to the negative experiences that Emerson had with his Aunt, the Second Church’s ministry, as well as from his peers at Harvard.

Thoreau’s relationship with God was not something he focused on in his career; however, he was a man of God. It is evident that Thoreau’s nonconformist views even stretched into the church; he once wore green to a chapel, only because the rules required black (Beers). Thoreau’s breaking of social norms leads one to assume that he was similar to Emerson in his views of institutionalized religion; a personal relationship with God is more important and more necessary than a secondhand relationship.

Emerson believed that the isolation and beauty of nature provoked religious introspection, and such introspection is paramount in the individual’s relationship with God. As observed in Emerson’s piece Nature, a close connection to nature is equitable to a close relationship to God via the oversoul.

In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.

Emerson’s use of imagery is effective in making the reader think for themselves; after all, creating a picture in one’s mind requires a great deal of thought, and this great deal of thought is what makes Emerson’s rhetorical strategies so effective. In connecting with Thoreau’s experiences, it seems that Emerson probably found great truths within Walden, seeing as such an experiment (Thoreau’s hitting the proverbial “reset button”) would enable enlightenment beyond what Emerson had ever known.

Thoreau uses rhetorical questions as he metaphorically relates a man building his own home to a songbird. Here in Walden Thoreau focuses on an individual who can create more beauty through his or her experiences in nature. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! We do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveler with their chattering and unmusical notes.

The home that Thoreau built for himself in the woods is meager at best, described as a “… house [that] is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” Walden exemplified Thoreau’s personal view that keeping a deep, primitive relationship with nature, without distraction, enables introspection that is vital to Thoreau’s view of nature. It also fosters a deeper understanding of the oversoul, a concept that Thoreau and Emerson passionately believed in.

Despite both being Transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson had large differences in their approaches to philosophy, theology, and the individual. Their writings are widely known for their incredible ability to incite introspection; Thoreau’s use of rhetorical questions and Emerson’s imagery are two different means of reaching the same result, each effective in its own right.

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The Difference in the Philosophies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. (2023, Feb 13). Retrieved from

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