Ralph Waldo Emerson was an 19th century American essayist and philosopher. After spending his early life as a schoolmaster and pastor he kickstarted the transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalists believe society and its institutions corrupt the purity of the individual. They believe individuals perform at their best when they rely solely on themselves.
In one of Emerson’s most prolific essays, Self Reliance, he expressed, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”. Emerson believed because of this you can never find yourself from within an institution. As he put it, “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument”.
Emerson believed, “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say, I think, I am, but quotes some saint or sage”. Emerson’s core belief was that power resided in nature, not institutions. He believed people place so much emphasis on the improvement of society that they neglect their own self-improvement. In his eyes, this is what accounts for the greatest suffering of man.
As Emerson put it, “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle”.
He believed to find yourself you must go into nature because nature provides the ultimate perspective. As he put it, “Look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and vulgar things”.
What Emerson was really trying to get at was that when you are alone in nature you see that we all have the same thing. It’s just that some of us have fancy names for our possessions.
Emerson expressed this best in a passage from his essay, Nature. “Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a coblers trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world”.
Emerson’s ideas about the power of nature inspired many great minds, including Henry David Thoreau, who later built a cabin in Walden woods, which were owned by Emerson. Thoreau lived here for two years, two months, and two days, whilst he wrote his infamous novel, Walden: Life in the Woods.
When are you camping next?