Monday, March 21, 2011

Term Paper on Emerson and Thoreau

Term Paper on Emerson and Thoreau

Mankind has long struggled to find it's identity. As the world evolved, society began to place their identity in objects, appearance, or status. Such idolatrous ways disgusted a man by the name of Henry David Thoreau. In his book Walden, Thoreau packs up ship for two years and heads out to live a life of experiment and solitude.

The ultimate purpose of his book was to make people aware of the lives they have submitted themselves to, and likewise re-evaluate what they place more value in; themselves or their possessions. The question Thoreau asks the reader is whether they control their possesions or do there possessions control them?


Reading this book can be mentally stressing. For some, Thoreau is a genius with revolutionary ideas and philosophy. For others, he is just a hermit and social reject who was angry at the world and wanted his voice heard. After reading the book, I believe that Thoreau makes a good point in many cases and presents ideas that are worth attention. Determining the effectiveness of the argument, however, is left to the individual. In order to write an effective argument, you must convince people to see your way. Where Thoreau falls short is that he fails to set up credability for himself. Who is he? What did he give up? What position in society did he have? He never gave his readers a background to where he came from.

Thoreau was the son of a successful pencil maker, graduated from Harvard in 1837 with respectable study in the classics, and six languages, and later founded his own school. In the 1920's Thoreau invented a machine that ground the plumbago for the leads in the pencils into a very fine powder and developed a combination of the finely ground plumbago and clay that resulted in a pencil that produced a smooth, regular line. This invention was so successful that Thoreau pencils and leads were the direct American competition to the big German pencil manufacturer, Faber.

Despite the popularity of his accomplishments, being a middle class pencil maker iin those days was nothing extraordinary. He had no mansions. He had no trust fund. As a career writer, he had no money of his own to live off of, so he lived with his mentor and famed writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Oddly enough, Walden pond and the woods that inspired Thoreau's writings, were owned by Emerson. Ironic how Thoreau preached individuality, but he couldn't even leave his backyard.

Many critics believe that Thoreau was a man driven by jealousy and confused with reality. Dr. Maxwell Hunter, a former University of Kentucky philosophy professor, explained "Thoreau was the rebel of transcendentalism. Every belief, faith, or movement has their extremists, and Henry Thoreau was just that. He had a steady growing despisement for [Ralph] Emerson, because he felt that he deserved some of Emerson's spot light. He had to take the transcendental belief to a new level and that is why he moved to the woods; recognition was what he was after."(Carver)
Is Thoreau's expertise of life birthed from mental instability? Dr. Michael Winters, a psychoanalyst and psychologist offers one assesment. " in the woods for two years was a front for a bigger issue. Thoreau had studied under Emerson for years and in a storybook way, the student felt he had surpassed his master. When the circle they both belonged to didn't not acknowledge this, Thoreau began to feel unappreciated and expendable. He wanted to leave the Emerson shadow. He wanted to leave his seal on the transcendental movement, so he created a philosophical chaos."(Woodrow)

Transcendentalism's core belief was to live as an individual in spirit and not material. Thoreau believed that one must be an individual in every way, even political anarchy. In his essay Civil Disobedience he wrote " That government is best which governs not at all."(Thoreau). His passion for social disbanding and primal governing was only one of his extremist points. His list goes on.

Food, fuel, clothing, and shelter. These are the four essentials, according to Thoreau, that one needs to maintain life. It is very hard to argue against this, because it is true. To appeal to his audience he uses the approach of logos, or the use of a logical argument.. He documents and records everything from money spent to measurements for roof shingles. His arguments, likewise, are very formulaic i.e "If you can wear a different shirt every day of the week then you have too many shirts." The rhetoric of his book relies almost entirely on his calculated numbers and own life experience. Life interpreted through one man's experience is practically infallible, especially when it is backed up with hand written journals and receipts of purchase. Basically, his argument is impossible to prove wrong because he write everything as he interperates it through his eyes. If someone tells you they saw something, yet you didn't see it yourself, how can you tell them that they saw wrong?

On the issue of clothing, Thoreau tells us that what you have on is all you need, as long as it traps in heat and keeps you dry. He mocks the nobility and upper class for having fancy outfits with brass and lace. The argument is that people of society have placed their identity in how their clothes make them look as opposed to who they are on the inside. It is a shallowness and in a form, shows weakness. The heavy competition for who can look the best, have the most clothes, and the nicest shoes sickens Thoreau. He believes that a patch or two on the clothing is alright, and for what it's worth, I agree with him. Where Thoreau falls short in convincing the reader is that he never tells us what's wrong with spending the money you have. He makes general assumptions that all but doom the human species for falling prey to the tailor's fashion sense. He leaves no margin for the population of people that have an honest liking for nice clothes. His argument corners everyone with a fashion sense and accuses them of being owned by their clothes, "...the attitudes towards "fashionable" clothing betray the weak-mindedness and cowardice of the majority."(Thoreau) Is this a fair accusation? Isn't it hilarious that many who embrace the writings of Thoreau don't know how to sew their own clothing? Instead they go to the mall. Appreciate the irony..

Thoreau has taken life and removed individual comfort and interest. He ignores questions like,What if I like wearing fancy clothes? What if I like having different pants to choose from? Thoreau believes that you can't have material things and enjoy life at the same time. I believe that this is not fact, but opinion. In Walden he creates a rhetoric that in his wooden hut only has one side. I guess if I wear fancy pants, then I am no longer an individual.

Walden goes along the same track on just about everything. Architecture being another target. The more we own and the bigger and more fancy the buildings, the deeper we plunge ourselves into a dreary and meaningless existence. Simplicity is what Thoreau preaches here. Why commission a house to be built and not design it yourself. You are bowing to the way the developer believes you should live. The house is then a part of the developers identity and not yours. Thoreau doesn't see the need for ballrooms, stone chimneys, silver door nobs, or marble floors. He asks Why spend that much, when you can spend less? Thoreau really never had wealth or any means of a generous income. Had he in fact, he may have run across the question that has bugged me while reading his book. How can Thoreau be such an advocate of giving up things that he never had to give up in the first place? I agree, all one needs is a wooden fork to eat with, but if you can afford a silver one, then why not buy it? Thoreau argues that you gain something by not buying finer things. Who is to say that you don't gain something if you do?

If Thoreau were here today, I would have many questions to ask him. Some for my better understanding of his book, but many in quesiton of his beliefs. He is hailed as a pioneer if individualism, but one inconsistancy pounds my mind everytime I hear the name Thoreau. If the life he lived in Walden is the ideal, then why did he only live there for two years? He went back to the society that he despised so much. To add to that, why is it that the furthest he could go was Emerson's property? Such a vast expance of country side, but he decided to play rogue boyscout not even two miles away from the village of Concord. Fact is, he needed safty. He need to know that if something went wrong, there would be medical attention ready. He wanted to be alone, but he wanted people to know he was there incase he need their help. For some, he was a philosophical phenominon, and others he was nothing more than the angry son camping out in Dads yard.

The desire for things that make you feel nice, look pretty, taste good, of decorate has been a way of life that has always been around. People want what other people have. Thoreaus ideas are, in fact, ideal, but will never be that way. Perhaps if he had been a millionaire prior to living in the woods, he would have gained more notoriety. That would have shown the ultimate sacrifice. What I don't see and ultimately Thoreau fails to present, is what did he give up in the first place. If you have little to begin with, what is there that you can give up? In his book, he still came to town, ate with friends and shopped at stores. In the end I ask, Who are you Thoreau? Do you control your philosophy or does your philosophy control you?

Warning!!! All free sample term papers and college term paper examples on Emerson and Thoreau topics are plagiarized and cannot be fully used in your high school, college or university education.

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