Essay #1

Due: March 13th

In three to five pages, discuss one of the following four topics:


Nature has a literary and a religious importance for both Emerson and Thoreau. One important feature of nature, for Thoreau, was its wildness. Discuss the meaning of "wildness" that nature had for Thoreau, and compare Thoreau's idea of wildness with the way Emerson views the importance of nature in his essays.

Self and society

Thoreau has often been characterised (usually by those who didn't know him) as a hermit and asocial, principally because he loved to spend time by himself, and also because he was a pretty strong critic of "society". But this picture does not accurately represent the way in which the Transcendentalists viewed the relationship between the self and society. Correct this distorted picture by discussing what Emerson had to say about the the relation between society and individuality. (Is society always a bad thing? Ought one to ignore others and abandon society? Etc.)


Emerson is both a religious and a critic of religion. He was an ordained Protestant minister, and yet he offended the Christian faculty at Harvard University when he addressed the graduating class of seminarians. Discuss Emerson's own beliefs about the "truths" of Christianity.


Empiricists believe that the only rational way to form beliefs is to look to what our sensations deliver to us. They do not believe that humans have any capacity to know things which cannot themselves be sensibly experienced, or be directly inferred from things that can be sensibly experienced. (Andrews Norton and the Unitarians, for example.) Rationalists, on the other hand, think that the human mind can arrive at truths through the (usually analytic, logical) powers of reason. Transcendentalists are neither, though they are most certainly closer to being rationalists than empiricists. Discuss Emerson's understanding of human reason (feel free to use Thoreau for assistance). What are its characteristics? What are the means by which we can know things about the Cosmos?