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Emerson Discussion Journal

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Emerson Discussion Journal

Transcendentalism was a nineteenth-century movement in the Romantic tradition, which held that every individual can reach ultimate truths through nature, spiritual intuition, emotion, and imagination. Transcendentalism emphasized living a simple life and encouraged optimism, self-reliance, and individualism. The Americans who called themselves Transcendentalists were idealists, but in a broader, more practical sense. Like many Americans today, they believed in human perfectibility, and they worked to achieve this goal.

The Transcendental movement was centered in Concord, Massachusetts, the home of its leading exponents, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson, through his lectures and writings, was a primary force behind the flowering of American culture. He helped inspire numerous reform movements aimed to improve public education, end slavery, elevate the status of women, and generally ease rough social conditions of the time. In 1840, Emerson remarked that every man who could read had plans in his pocket for a new community. Thoreau, acting on his Transcendentalist beliefs, lived for two years in a cabin at Walden Pond in Massachusetts to rediscover the grandeur of a simple life led close to nature. In his book Walden, a journal of his time there, Thoreau encourages his readers to fight conformity, something he did in his own life by refusing to pay state poll taxes (as a protest against the Mexican War and slavery) and by helping those escaping slavery make their way to Canada.


Read the excerpt from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”. Working with your partner, come to a consensus and complete the discussion questions below.

  1. Consider how Emerson defined manhood. Create a list of the traits he feels are necessary for man.

  1. Reflect on the following quotes. What does Emerson mean? Do you agree or disagree with his statements:

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”

“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

  1. Look up and write the definitions of “absolve” and “suffrage.” Explain what Emerson means when he writes, “Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

  1. In your groups, reflect on the quote “To be great is to be misunderstood.” What does Emerson mean? Do you agree or disagree with this quote. If you agree, explain why greatness is often misunderstood.

  1. What’s your favorite quote from Emerson’s essay? Why?

DMU Timestamp: September 11, 2019 18:32

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