Week 8: Ralph Waldo Emerson and American Transcendentalism Post Due: Wed., Oct. 20

Excellent posts last week, students, on Hamilton, Franklin, and the American Enlightenment.

Mohammed, Tenzin, Mehreen, Amina, Zarif, and Brian focused on Franklin’s “secret sauce” behind his far-ranging excellence: reading, debate, understanding human limits and possibilities, and always striving to do and be better.  Brianna and Christin rightly took stock of the amazing range of Franklin’s talents and interests, while Ulises and Ariel pointed to his deeply moralistic and philanthropic nature.  Of his pursuit of human perfection, Maria aptly writes:

“Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Chastity, Humility. JUST WOW.”

Sumayah, in turn, commented on a crucial distinction between the Puritans of the 1600s and Enlightenment figures like Franklin who believed in the active pursuit of human ethics over mere faith in God to improve oneself and society.

As Harood and Karina point out, Franklin’s morality is best evident perhaps in his overlooked anti-slavery petition, written just before his death.  Karina cites this important line that insists on true American equality:

“The Christian Religion teaches us to believe that mankind are all formed by the same Almighty being, and are all alike objects of his Care, & are equally designed for the Enjoyment of Happiness; Since we believe that these blessings should be given without distinction of Colour to all People, we expect that everything should be done to help all people.”

What about Alexander Hamilton?  Enson pointed to Hamilton’s own enormous achievement as a founder of this nation and how his popular Musical helps show this to a worldwide audience.

As Amy writes, the sensational song in the video by the cast members: “is about his journey and points out his hardships of losing his mother, the debt left behind by his father, and how his cousin committed suicide. He started working and trading goods such as sugar cane and things he couldn’t afford. He sailed onto a ship to New York to become a new man.” 

Hamilton’s story is about a self-made man (like Franklin and Venture Smith) but it’s also an early mythical New York success story (“if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere…).

At the same time, we need to keep a critical eye on the past and how it’s relayed. History (and literature and musicals) are as much about documenting the past as they are about leaving important facts out.  Let’s always be wary about who’s telling the story and why (and who’s and what’s not being included in the story), as Nelson and Terriann in their astute posts, remind us.

MID-TERM NOTE

We are now at the mid-point of the semester.  I have provided a mid-term grade based on your posts thus far.  Go to the “Check Your Grade” icon (on the right side of the site) to check on this.  At this point, I also want you to start thinking about a topic (author or theme) that you would like to write about for your Essay Assignment (I am only requiring one essay for this class). HERE ARE DIRECTIONS FOR THE ESSAY. Please choose a topic by Nov. 2. The essay will be due Dec. 14. Please email me about any questions you may have (mnoonan@citytech.cuny.edu).

UPCOMING POST AND READING ASSIGNMENTS (DUE WED. OCT. 20)

For this week, I want you to read some of the writings of America’s first renown poet, philosopher, and essayist: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).  

Please watch this brief documentary on his life, which was filmed in Concord, MA, where he lived for much of his life. Concord was the center of the Transcendentalist movement and remains a great place to visit.

Emerson’s first great essay (“Nature”) focused on the topic of attaining power and connection to God by leaving our desks and computers and taking a walk in the woods. Only in finding solitude (far away from others) can we find our true selves.  In “Nature” (1836), we see the core of Transcendental thought, i.e. how to revive our souls and become “part and parcel of God.”

Here is its key passage, illustrating the power of transcendence that Nature allows:

In the woods, is perpetual youth… In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. … I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature. 

Please read an excerpt from “Nature” HERE.

Another important essay by Emerson was “The American Scholar” (1837), in which he argues that colleges need to train students to think for themselves, not simply repeat ideas that are told to them. We all need to become what he calls, “Man Thinking” — students/scholars who read deeply, question all that they read, and act on this knowledge to improve society and themselves.

His most famous essay — perhaps the most famous essay every written — is “Self-Reliance” (1850), which makes the case for radical individuality. It’s a somewhat long, repetitive essay, in which he essentially reiterates the key idea to “trust thyself” but well worth pondering and returning to as I do every year.  The link I provide is a helpful guide to this essay (which it reprints at the bottom of the page). Choose a passage to read that interests you.

For your post, I ask you to choose a favorite line or section from one of these essays (“Nature”; “American Scholar”, or “Self-Reliance”). Discuss what you think Emerson is saying and how it connects in some way to your own life and/or present day society.

34 Comments

  1. Zarif

    The line from The American Scholar. “In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” really spoke out to me. A lot of times people especially in our generation want to follow trends and follow what other celebrities and popular people do. This can really make people become victims of society, not choosing what they want to do in life but doing what they feel like everyone else thinks is right which is not a good thing to do. It will leave you feeling alone and empty inside trying to pretend to be someone that you are not.

    • sumayah

      I agree, were in a generation where everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon in order to fit in.

    • Mark Noonan

      Ah yes, the problem of conformity, especially in the Age of Social Media. Insightful opening post Zarif (and great comment Sumayah).

  2. Mohammed Islam

    The line from “Self-Reliance” that stood out to me was “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.” I think he’s trying to say, don’t care about what people say about you, instead do what you know you have to. Don’t let what other say dictate your life, you know what you have to do. A lot of people have a lot to say and that shouldn’t bring you away from doing what you want. This quote connects to my life so much. A lot of people have a lot to say about my life. Being brown and having brown parents, they always want you to do things their way. They don’t care what you want to do. The “brown guilt” is real. They always compare you and bring you down. I try to not let what people around me say distract me and bring me away from what I want to do but it’s hard. People always think they know more about you and what you’re supposed to do. I became better at trying to block out all that noise and focus on me. The goal in life is just to be happy and that’s what I’m trying to do.

    • sumayah

      very relatable! I come from a middle eastern household, and they wanted me to do things their way and not mines.

    • Mark Noonan

      Very thoughtful and intriguing post, Mohammed. Your point about how Emerson’s ideas relate to race and society today is particularly insightful.

  3. Tenzin Tsomo

    According to Emerson, he feels there is a need to change in the current education system which has resulted in students relying on notes and memorizing it as it is stated in the last paragraph of “The American Scholar”, “Free should the scholar be, — free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, “without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.” Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him…..” It is imperative to give importance to nature that highly influences the human mind, and allow the students the freedom to discover and explore new ideas. He emphasized that one should not blindly follow anything, rather comprehend the logic and emerge as a thinking man. The task of changing the world is totally dependent on future generations; they can either be a thinking man or blindly follow guided rules and regulations. I agree with Emerson on the concept of learning to think critically based on what is taught in school or in the textbooks. I believe that we use critical thinking skills every day. They help us to make good decisions, understand the consequences of our actions and solve problems. It’s the process of using focus and self-control to solve problems and set and follow through on goals. It uses other essential life skills such as making connections and communicating. Critical thinking is basically necessary to help us make good, sound decisions based on good judgment and analysis.

    • Mark Noonan

      You really picked out the best quote from Emerson’s essay, Tenzin.
      “Free should the scholar be, — free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom.”
      Your emphasis on the importance of Critical Thinking, especially nowadays, is particularly well-stated.

  4. Brian Chan

    After reading Emerson’s essay, I think he is saying that while we are capable of thinking for ourselves, we often follow the footsteps of others. In a way its like monkey see monkey do. Emerson refers to this as the rejection of our own ideas and in a way its very true. For example, we sometimes copy the answers of classmates because we don’t believe in ourselves enough. Even the title of the essay is self explanatory. Being able to rely on yourself is both a skill and a habit, which take time to perfect. He also refers to wisdom as a representation of core values such as virtue and life. It connects to our lives because as society and the human race progresses on, we see an emerging desire of people to become leaders rather than followers. Many are aware and confident in what they want, leading to a great acceptance of personal ideas. Instead of following our parents’ footsteps, many of us have detached from their paths and follow our own while creating new opportunities. Just as the title implies, we can change our lives for the better through the use of self reliance.

    • Mark Noonan

      You focus on one of the key tenets of Emerson’s philosophy and discuss it well, Brian.
      Your point about copying (or student plagiarism) being the result of cowardice and fear (rather than laziness even) is particularly revelatory.

  5. Christin

    Society plays a big role in our everyday life and how we as residents, keep our community functioning. Society refers to a group of people living as a community or an organized group of people for a common purpose. In the text, “self- reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emmerson, Emmerson views society as a stressor (for most individuals who take part in society). He believes it lessens our potential as successful, unique beings. He states, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” In other words, he believes society is programmed to rob people of their true identity as a individual, and their liberty as well. In a way, he views society as a contract in which we sacrifice our freedom in return for a lifestyle that is more reassuring but may be far from fulfilling. This is also known as a structural- functionalism perspective in sociology. The structural functionalist theory suggests that each society provide its members with requirements for functioning. I agree with Emmerson, for the reason being that I believe society restricts us from expanding our horizons. Society limits us to certain options and teaches us a curriculum that mostly leads us all in the same, one direction. It can make us believe there a right and wrong way to live life, rather than us deciding for ourselves, what is right for us and whats not.

    • Mark Noonan

      You choose the finest line from Emerson, Christin, and discuss it extremely well:

      “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.”

      I also like how you connect Emerson to key concepts from Sociology, a field I imagine he influenced to some degree

  6. Amina Shabbir

    I think Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” is the best thing ever written because it is quite encouraging and inspiring. It clearly conveys a message about how our surroundings and environment influence us, which has an impact on our everyday life. The quote from “Self-Reliance” that stood out to me was “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” I believe the author is trying to indicate that one should believe in their own accomplishments and ignore the criticism of others. Often times, when things aren’t going well in our life, we frequently compare ourselves to others, which is normal. As a returning student to college after a long break, I found it difficult to understand and cope with the assignments, and I was even hesitant to participate in class because most of the time I felt lost and compared myself to others. This quote, I believe, implies that we should trust our own capabilities and direction rather than relying on the advice of others. It is essential to motivate people to become more self-sufficient and empowered to make their own decisions without being influenced.

    • Mark Noonan

      I couldn’t agree more Amina about Emerson’s essay being one the most inspiring pieces of writing anywhere. In your discussion about the challenges of being a returning student during the pandemic and its connection to Emerson’s sentiments, you make an extremely important point about self-motivation and staying focused despite all the many many distractions (and opinions of others!)

  7. majoguadua

    After reading Nature I want to share a few thoughts:
    I can use Ralph Emerson as an example when saying that wisdom will always be found within ourselves. No matter the time, the year, the era in which we are living.
    2. I have been thinking that much of the things that we know now are due to technology, researches, and years of study but now I think the answers have been always within ourselves.
    This man wrote something almost 200 years ago that people right now struggle to know and to practice. I am just speechless. “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes.” This is what we now know by “grounding” or “earthing”.

    “There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet”
    This makes me think about how the person who knows HOW to observe can see things that others can’t, even if they are looking at the same. Like Benjamin Franklin did for example. To observe is an art. And is all about seeing what you didn’t see before and it was always there.

    I will finish with this phrase: “Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE.”
    This makes me think of one of my biggest life ideologies, which is that we are part of a WHOLE and that the universe is already within ourselves, and in order to find it or to understand it you have to travel to your inner self so you can get to know yourself so deeply that you become what you keep looking in the external world.

    Thank you for this reading. It touched my fibers.

    • Mark Noonan

      Maria, Thank you for this tremendously insightful reading of Emerson’s remarkable essay. You magnificently capture the essence of Transcendentalism in this post (no small feat!), citing and discussing its most provocative (and indeed moving) lines. Emerson did seek to not just write nor just take a walk in Nature; he sought “grounding” as you say and hoped to convey this possibility to others. The Transcendental Movement at the time, which he led, did indeed capture the attention of many during his time and into our own. Well done!

  8. Ariel Montesino

    The line that stood out to me from the Scholar was line 9, “Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, — to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.” This’ll be my 4th year in college and despite learning new things in class I’m never able to properly take what I’ve learned into practice. Whether it be java, sql, or python I’m never able to properly make code from scratch without having help or looking at old code I’ve made. I really like Emerson’s comment here because textbook knowledge can only get you so far in the real world and there will be a time where you need to improvise and be creative. College will cover the basics but you’ll need more than just the basics if you want to perfect your craft.

    • Mark Noonan

      Superb example and discussion of Emerson’s key point in “The American Scholar”, Ariel.
      Creativity and inspiration come from within; schools need to help teaching skills and allow for creativity in students to flourish — as you astutely point out.

  9. sumayah

    When reading the excerpt from “Nature”, there were many lines that stood out to me. In the text, he states “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and vulgar things. ” I believe that this text had a deeper meaning, the author says for someone to go into nature, they must remove themselves from society in order to find inner peace. He also states “His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food.” this caught my eye because I felt like this line was said for religious purposes, in many religions like Christianity or Judaism, we strongly believe that someone has to be good on earth in order to get into heaven, so it becomes part of our daily lives, we live by it. He also states “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the
    suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am
    not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me and I to them. The
    waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me and old. It takes me
    by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher
    thought or a better emotion coming over me when I deemed I was
    thinking justly or doing right” when reading this line, I felt like I was in a movie, the author beautifully used imagery to describe his emotions and experience when being in the “nature” alone. When reading the essay “American scholar” the author states
    “Books are the best type of the influence of the past, and perhaps we shall get at the truth, — learn the amount of this influence more conveniently, — by considering their value alone.” this line stood out to me because I agree with the author, books are the best type of source if the past. For instance, when we read textbooks to learn about the Egyptian civilization, we learn about Egyptian history, etc.

    • Mark Noonan

      Sumayah, Superb discussion of Emerson’s difficult text “Nature” and “American Scholar.” You nicely capture “Nature’s” spiritual element and the important philosophical relevance of both pieces.

  10. Enson Zhou

    When Reading the excerpt American Scholar a particular line stood out to me. “We all know, that, as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge.” I like how the author uses the example of using food to feed your body and relating it to how knowledge can fuel your brain. This relates to our society today because the power of knowledge is just like food. It is an important part of your life that you need to survive. Without food, your body would slowly break down. Then without the power of knowledge feeding your brain, your brain will slowly die out and can lead to vital life changes. This is why schooling is important, Although we might not like it.It is a vital part of everyone’s life even if you don’t do schooling, learning something new on your own to keep your mind moving is beneficial.

    • Mark Noonan

      Nice pick-up Enson. I like how you extend the metaphor of food (for critical thinking) and the need to stay vital by constantly nourishing our minds with fresh material. You do so in a way that Emerson (who loved metaphors) would have admired.

  11. Ulises

    From the essay “Nature” by Raph Waldo Emerson, on one my favorite lines were the following: “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. “I think what Emerson meant by that is people do not realize things even if they have it in front of them, they will probably realize it is when they are missing and they are no longer there. In addition, as Emerson says, adults are the ones who mostly happen these things, they are so concerned with “their responsibilities” that they decide to ignore anything that surrounds them, even when these things illuminates them. When I refer to “these things”, it can be family problems, close people with illnesses, health problems, and anything that will be affected emotional and physical in the future. The best example that I can think of in society, that I can even consider myself, is not appreciating the effort of our parents of trying to make a better life for us, many people treat their parents badly or inhuman and do not realize the sacrifices they make. They do so that we do not lack anything, just as the sun does, we know the superficial about it, but we do not appreciate it enough until the day it will be missing. I am aware that I am contradicting myself because I previously said that adults are the ones who mostly happen these things, but I suppose that I am not adult enough yet to come up with a better example than the one I just gave about kids not seeing their sun metaphorically speaking!

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent reading Ulises of the importance of “sight” in Emerson. We often don’t see the most important things which I right in front of us. Your son/sun metaphor is very apt.

  12. Karina

    While reading Emerson’s essay on “Nature”, there were many lines that stood out to me. Throughout this essay we were able to see how Emerson compared our “nature” our essence of who we truly are to that of the actual nature itself. For example, when Emerson states “The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood”. With this line, I feel like he is stating that one will remain true to himself if he still has those same similar thoughts as he was as a child, nowadays with everything that has been happening and with adulthood, as adults we have many responsibilities, yes we are all aware of that, however that does not mean we should forget who we are and not enjoy life itself as it is. As a child we were amazed by many things and fascinated by the smallest thing there was, but now as adults things change. We should align ourselves within to keep our inner child happy, not repress ourselves from enjoying what life has to offer us. Emerson truly connected how we as adults seem to have changed a lot, but it shouldn’t b this way, despite the many responsibilities and stress factors we may have from society and so forth, we should take time for ourselves, reconnect with our inner self for peace, tranquility and our happiness.

    • Mark Noonan

      Your reading of Emerson’s call to maintain our “childhood innocence” and happiness is spot on and a great theme to focus on Karina. This topic would make for an excellent paper topic. It’s a theme Emerson returns to in “Self-Reliance”

  13. Amyl

    One of my favorite sections from “Nature” was when Emerson said, “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.” When I saw the assignment, I thought the name of this writer was familiar, and then it hit me. I remember reading a few of his essays in the past in high school. The essay “Nature” talks about being able to separate the relation of nature and humanity. In connection to his other essay, Transcendence (if I remember the name correctly) talks about how nature allows one to escape reality to free our minds to better connect with our inner self.

    Similarly, Emerson talks about the use of nature to under the world and of ourselves. While some uses sciences focus on finding theories to answer questions and others on religious beliefs, he wants us to spend more time tuned with nature. When you can appreciate nature and not in the superficial sense, you can then feel the connection. These days in present society, things have become so superficial. Many people use nature to take ‘nice pictures’ and only for nice pictures. Its become apparent how much society has changed. Although people do appreciate nature, people have focused too much on technology and their eyes glued to their phones. I remember going on an upstate trip to a retreat in high school, and there was no signal. It was nature and only nature. I recall appreciating the little things from a hidden stream I’ve found and the very many stars I saw at night. It was a fantastic experience, and I will never forget it. I hope that someday, people can get off their cell phones and truly appreciate what’s around them.

    • Mark Noonan

      Thorough and thoughtful reply Amy on Emerson’s grand thoughts in Nature. You’re exactly right about achieving Transcendence (the philosophical school is Transcendentalism) in Nature by ” freeing our minds to better connect with our inner self. ” At the same time, we should also connect Outwards with God and Universe, both inner and outer elements working in unison. NIcely analyzed.

  14. Mehreen Khanom

    My favorite line from “Nature” is “We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy.” This line caught my attention because religious wise I can relate to this line. What I believe this may mean is when it comes to faith/religion, people trust God’s creation and have faith in him but there are still so many questions on how things work or how the world was created. I relate to it because faith-wise of course I have to trust what God has created but curiosity builds up in our head but that’s the human in us. Even if we trust God and his creation, there is always going to be questions roaming in our head.

    • Mark Noonan

      Nice reading Mehreen of this interesting line. Indeed, we can strengthen our faith in opening our eyes up to Nature (God’s Creation) and we can also access his enormous power in doing so.

  15. Nelson Estrella II

    A line from”The American Scholar” that stood out to me the most was “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst”. What I think Emerson is saying with this line is that books are some of the best things in life because you can learn so much from a book, books are in a sense food for the Brain because you get to learn so much and books come with so many different types of ideas it all depends on the genre you are reading. This quote relates to me in someway because it’s true so many of my books are abused in the sense that some pages are crumbled, my hard cover copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the world and me” is starting to crease up on the edges, so I can relate to when he says books are among the worst of abused.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent line to focus on Estrella. Your reference to the great Ta-Nehisi Coates (who actually was a big fan of American writer Herman Melville who’ll we’ll also be reading) is important. Coates is one of today’s most important essayists — as you are aware — who truly and deeply questions society and its structures of thought . This and his courageous, critical, individual voice are also very Emersonian.

  16. haroodg

    This line from The American Scholar “Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm” stood out to me the most due to its relatedness to the current education system. From my perspective, the basic structure of the current education system is built on the formation of retaining then executing. Its characteristics are quite similar to those of the industrialization of America, where employees would learn and repeat many of the same tasks for the rest of their careers. Other institutions try to differentiate themselves by creating more involved curriculums but still suffer from the same problem. Students don’t learn, they only remember. Seeing that Emerson was a student from Harvard I believe that he thought his generations of scholars were not thinkers. I believe Emerson’s version of a “Man thinking” is a person who is very knowledgeable with philosophical characteristics. Someone who asks questions, form opinions, and creates arguments based on the information they learn is a “man thinking”. This connects to me personally because as a college student I feel like a “bookworm” than a “man thinking”. I feel very knowledgeable on many topics but have not applied that knowledge in a meaningful way. Only through application can new ideas can be invented.

  17. Paulina Vega

    The essay I chose to look over was “The American Scholar”. What really stood out to me while I was reading was “Books are the best type of the influence of the past, and perhaps we shall get at the truth, — learn the amount of this influence more conveniently, — by considering their value alone.” This stood out to me because I agree that we can get any information and truth from the past in books. It can inform us more than we think it can. It can help us better understand things we didn’t know about because what has been written down in books has been there for a while and nothing has changed in those pages. This is why Emerson argues that colleges need to train students to think for themselves, not simply repeat ideas that are told to them. We all need to become what he calls, “Man Thinking” — students/scholars who read deeply, question all that they read, and act on this knowledge to improve society and themselves.

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