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Thoreau and Emerson Views on Society

There exists a commonly accepted theory that says that the development of civilization and movement of society may be presented in the shape of a spiral; this means that in the course of time humanity changes, but sooner or later it repeats the past at least partially, it appears on the same or very similar turn of the spiral of development. That is why often it is very useful and reasonable to refer to men of the wisdom of the past to find the answers to urgent questions of today. They say that, for instance, Aristotle is almost sure to be the primary source to address if you want to answer some question. Still, he is not the only person to refer to, because a great number of outstanding people of the past threw light on the aspects of life that present vital importance today. Such people are, for instance, H. D. Thoreau and R. W. Emerson, who can teach us a lot, despite the fact that they lived more than a century ago.

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As for me, H. D. Thoreau together with R. W. Emerson may be called prophets, because my firm belief is that the description of American society in their works, mainly in “Life Without Principle” by Thoreau corresponds to our contemporary society even better than to the society of the nineteenth century. If we did not know the dates of their life, we could well imagine that they were our contemporaries.

Thoreau says: “I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business” (Thoreau 2). By means of this idea the author wants to say that our life has been turned upside down, we live in order to earn money and we have forgotten its primary purpose – to provide our living. Money is just the means of achieving some aim; it is, certainly, not the most important thing for our existence. The author condemns such people who are the slaves of money, unfortunately, nowadays the majority of the people are, no matter, in which country they live. Money is our God; this is why in our whole life the values and principles become distorted and we choose the wrong route in life. Nowadays we have completely forgotten that such things as poetry, art, music can make us happy. Maybe our skills of perceiving beauty have atrophied; we simply cannot get pleasure from anything that does not bring profit. Among contemporary people there are so many workaholics and businessmen, whose first consideration is a financial success because they do not work in order to get pleasure, they work with the only aim of accumulating wealth. Thoreau warns us about selling our life for money (Thoreau 2). Besides, he stresses that the employer should not hire a person who is sure to work for money only; they are not appropriate employees, it is better to find a qualified person with multiple aims than a robot, who is programmed for getting a salary.

Besides, the author claims that we should: “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities” (Thoreau 17). He wants to prove to us that we get the wrong sources of information, and it is really so. Together with money, we are deluded and misguided by the mass media and, sometimes, even science. We should not scatter our aspiration for knowledge; we should just understand that the main source of knowledge is our soul and our culture.

Related to this matter is one more topic tackled by Thoreau, the function of politics in our life. There is no denying the fact that nowadays politicians rule the life and mind of society. Thoreau agrees that politics is useful, but there is no sense making so much fuss about it, to devote entire columns in newspapers to it, because it should perform its functions imperceptibly. Politics is for politicians only, but in our society, it occupies the minds of common people, though it is evident that it makes no use, this is why we should transform our attitude toward politics.

One more proof of the wrong life position of contemporary people who have money in the center of things may be proved by the following quotation:

If a man walks in the wood for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is an esteemed industrious and enterprising citizen (Thoreau 3).

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This citation presents special interest because here the author subconsciously described one of the main problems of today’s humanity: environmental problems. There is no denying the fact that many plants break the laws that protect nature in order to increase profit, they pollute water, air, and soil for the only reason – increase of the capital, and if citizens let them do this, it means that they approve of their actions. Thoreau advises us to return to nature, to find there the source of power and natural beauty that is necessary for our soul.

Thoreau’s ideas are supported in Emerson’s work; what is more, this author throws light on other aspects of a person in society that continue to be topical today. Such is the importance of societal approval for people, which often prevents us from trusting ourselves. And self-reliance and trust in oneself are the main principles of life suggested by Emerson. It is obviously true; every one has noticed not once that we act under the threat of being condemned by society, and this is peculiar for the majority of people today. Emerson inspires us to act in accordance with our individuality to avoid foolish consistency. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines’’ (Emerson 24). We should always remember that we are unique individuals and our desires and aspirations should guide us and prompt the right actions. At the same time, Emerson is not trying to establish anarchy in society, as it may seem, because he draws our attention to the fact that self-reliance should be regarded not as an ultimate goal of actions, but just as a starting point for every person.

By means of conclusion, it should be stated that H. D. Thoreau and R. W. Emerson’s views and principles are extremely important for contemporary American society and human society on the whole. It is evident that society is moving in the wrong direction, because it is guided by wrong values, material wealth, in particular. The authors’ message for the current generation may be decoded in the following way: awake our individuality and search for real values in our soul and mind. Only in this case society will survive and become happy.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self-reliance and Other Essays. NY: Courier Dover Publications, 1993.

Thoreaur, Henry David. Life Without Principle. NY: Forgotten Books, 2008.

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