Societal and Natural Comparisons

After reading Henry David Thoreau an Ralph Waldo Emerson, one can come to the conclusion that nature and the individual are heavily connected and reliant upon one another. In order to analyze this, one must first carefully look at Emerson’s Nature, in which he describes the benefits of nature away from society and why it affects the individual.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
(1803-1882)

“To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars” (Emerson 1).

Isolation…being set apart from the rest of the world, becoming more than a number, and focusing on oneself as an individual. These are all things that Emerson promotes in Nature. However, whereas Thoreau would argue that separating oneself from society is a good thing, Emerson appears to take a different approach. Emerson states that he is not in fact solitary while he reads and writes, even though there is nobody there with him. Emerson tells the reader to look to the stars, as if to say that one is never alone, but is always accompanied by their dreams and aspirations. Emerson’s approach to the individual revolves around nature. He believes that nature is one of the most direct ways of for someone to become an individual, as they are isolated from the rest of their race, a race that has chosen to pave urban environments instead of dwelling in nature with the rest of the animal kingdom. Emerson brings up the interesting dynamic that people inherently belong in nature, and it is only by being where one belongs that they can tap into their individual identity.

Emily Dickinson
(1830-1886)

The need to be an individual is further expressed by Emily Dickinson in Poem 260:

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Dickinson addresses the same concept that Emerson does by declaring that it would be “dreary” to be someone in society. Instead, Dickinson describes herself as a “nobody,” intending to separate herself from the rest of society. “Nobody” come to represent the individual, who has no need to listen to her peers as it is only her opinion that counts. Dickinson creates a metaphor in her poem, and manages to convey the societal urban world as a bog, ripe with activity but difficult to find specific frogs in. So, in refraining from being the frog that announces itself to the bog, Dickinson casts herself instead as the frog that wanders away from the bog into the wide world. It might be interesting to both note and conclude on this simple observation: Dickinson’s logic, had it been followed to the letter and taken literally, would have caused the individualist crisis of the 1920’s. The morals of both authors are the same: Do not forsake the bog, but do not confine yourself there either. Explore your surroundings, and perhaps you shall find yourself without alienating your fellow frogs.

In conclusion, nature serves as a conduit for the individual mind. Unaffected by other thoughts, emotions, ideas and pressures, the individual is left to flourish in his own imagination while in nature, whereas this would never be possible in society. Emerson seems to believe that urban society, though a habitat created by man for man, is not in fact in any way connected with nature, except by perhaps being a polar opposite. One could argue that nature is profound for the individual not because it directly affects the individual, but rather because it allows the individual to affect him or herself. Nature is like a pair of sound-canceling headphones that you can put on while on a plane. It cancels everything else out, and you are left with only yourself, and it is only in this way that one can truly learn about himself.

For further exploration of this topic, also check out this website:

http://thefreedomthinker.com/2009/09/01/the-individual-versus-society

Works Cited

Thomson, Irene T. “From Conflict to Embedment: The Individual-Society Relationship.” Sociological Forum 12.4 (1997): 631-58. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Jaroslav Pelikan. Nature. Boston: Beacon, 1985. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. Poem 260. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.

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