The beauty of Emerson, Thoreau, and Critical Theorists

I have always been in love with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Since the first time my 19-year-old eyes absorbed the inky words of “Self-Reliance,” one of his most popular essays, I was transfixed on his thoughts of transcendentalism and the belief in the essential good of man and nature.

“My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle,” wrote Emerson in Self Reliance. “I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady.”

Throughout college, I read with voracious lust the thoughts of men and women who dared to rise above the fold and observe life from a new angle. Henry David Thoreau being another favorite, with his quote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

To live deliberately, to not apologize for who I was ~ these were the battles I fought every day of my life, but were now placed before me in eloquent text. The prose was life-changing for its ability to simply and succinctly describe what was common to every man, but could not be translated into the written, nor spoken, word by him.

Once I graduated, it was rare I had time for such thought-provoking text that allowed me to observe the world from an angle that rose above the clutter of everyday life. Until recently when I enrolled in Ashland University to pursue a master’s degree. An MFA in Creative Writing, to be exact. On my journey to receive my degree, I ended up taking a master’s level course in critical theory.

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I had never been exposed to critical theory or its complicated text before. Initially, I was excited and intimidated by the fact I had to read the textbook alongside my Webster-Merriam dictionary just to understand it. But the deeper I got, the more I became absorbed in the complicated ideas of theorists and philosophers such as Karl Marx, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. The purpose of the class was not to master the notion of critical theory and its philosophers, but to simply be exposed to who they were and what they brought to society.

The class, for me, was eye-opening. The notion of the individual as an entity battling external forces in order to maintain his or her freedom, and how that individual responds, is a battle we all experience on some level. I, like most, had been part of that struggle in many facets of my life, from social constructs to political and socioeconomic hierarchies. I could relate to much of what was said and wanted to explore the text more.

We all jokingly talk about fighting “the man,” but this class puts that notion into perspective and helps broadly define what it actually means and how philosophers and theorists view it from its many different angles.

I now have a reading list I’ll be working on over the next few months if you’d like to join along. Some will be revisiting old loves, while some will be first reads of texts I find fascinating.

  • Thoreau, On Walden Pond
  • Emerson, Self-Reliance, Nature, and The American Scholar
  • Marx, Communist Manifesto
  • Horkheimer (with Theodor Adorno), Dialectic of Enlightenment
  • Marcuse, One Dimensional Man
  • György Lukács, History & Class Consciousness

Do you have a book in the same vein I should check out? Or perhaps a counter-argument to these theorists and philosophers?

I’d love to hear your suggested titles!

Cheers.

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