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Compare and/or contrast Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” with Thoreau’s, “Civil Disobedience”.(papers should make use of analysis; No research is necessary. Use your books and handouts.)One such handout is attached.


Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’ and Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’

Emerson’s Self Reliance and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience are both grounded in the Transcendatilsm philosophy that gained prominence in the 19th century. This philosophy, as evidenced in both essays, shows a dominant theme that emphasizes human intuition especially in its subjective capacity. Ultimately, the human self is described and observed as inherently good and capable of making just and right decisions. Equally, in its promotion of individualism, the philosophy dismissed community or other human-made structures as biased and prone to facilitate corruption and injustice. Self-Reliance and Civil Obedience were essays written with this common theme based on the historical proceedings and major injustices that plagued that period. Even so, there are notable differences between these essays and their proposed approach on these matters (Lovell, p.18). Additionally, the extent of practicality as proposed by differing strategies in these pieces creates a dynamic point of comparison.


The strongest themes of Transcendatilsm are individualism, equality, nature or aboriginalism and the power of all these human entities and the obligation of social responsibility. The foundational component of the human self is thus describes as powerful and all-knowing without the external corruption of human-made philosophies and structures.Emerson says, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” (Emerson, p.2), signaling to the uniformity of human individuality and knowledge of moral.  Emerson’s Self Reliance suggests the strength of humanity’s spiritual nature as a means of creating purpose and passion. It thus becomes instrumental to obtain internal balance and bond with nature as a means of staying grounded. In extension, it is every human’s responsibility to sustain their individualism and ensure that they do not conform to society (Lovell, p. 65). In his appeal, Thoreau asks, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation?”, (Thoreau, p.2): placing the human entity as superior over the law. Human intuition is therefore a unique and independent component that is capable of distinguishing right from wrong and ultimately avoiding any form of injustice. Emerson’s essay highlights that those who do not conform often stand alone and only in this way are they truly able to bring social justice and demonstrate true social responsibility. Self-reliance is therefore an evident philosophy that becomes very loud in its actions and demonstrations where the individuals are guided by principals.

In a similar manner, Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ highlights an important theme that “The government is best which governs least”. Upon this reference, the essay goes ahead to also describe social responsibility and its importance in democracy or governments. Interestingly, Thoreau acknowledges the good effects of governments or democracy but equally equates it as the root of all corruption. He also emphasizes human intuition for social justice and shows his own trust for his intuition when he goes to prison. His cellmate says he is innocent of the crime he is accused of: Thoreau believes in his innocence and goes ahead to formulate his own explanation of what really happened. He also describes the processes by which majorities dominate governments and actualize a destructive sense of falsehood that trickled down. His suggested alternative resembles those of self-reliance in which he calls on individuals to stand their own ground especially when they are not favored by tyranny of numbers (Lovell, p.87). Essentially, one person who stands against oppression even if they are persecuted, if they do it well, the effectsare positively eternal. To this Thoreau says in his reflection, “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders.” (Thoreau, p.9)

Civil Disobedience is based on the historical dilemma and injustices of slavery and the Mexican-American War of his time. Notably, his message contained a peculiar mash of romanticism and realism. He suggested the area of paying taxes as one tool of opposing the machine of government and possibly, completely incapacitating it. He is seen pondering on whether his taxes ended up in nation building or as a tool of oppression. In this consideration, he outlines the moral importance of standing against injustice and the government every time it inhibits on freedom. In his effort to emphasize the strength of the minority as long as one is guided by justice he says, “what is once well done is done forever” (Thoreau, p. 13) Civil disobedience thus calls for action to protect freedom even at the expense of free trade and economic structures. Thoreau’s reference to social accountability and morality are endless with the voting process being dissected as well. To him, even those who choose to vote or not to vote for the most moral option serve nobody if their own actions propelinjustice even in the most menial of ways.

In contrast, Civil Disobedience is more descriptive in its call to action and even suggests that where civil disobedience cannot be peaceful then it must be aggressive. In a radical and bold agenda, Civil Disobedience says that if the course is great enough, those who oppose oppression must go to prison. This demonstrates the accuracy of disagreement between the government and the oppressed and accurately so outlines the faults of the government. Interestingly, this essay admits that while not everyone is out to defend others or enforce social justice, it is imperative that they do not support it in their own actions or oppress another human being. Ideally, this is a practical declaration that truly balances the process of endless conflict with peace. However, it ensures a system of continuous negotiation and engagement with the government to ensure that the people reinforce their importance at the core of governance (Lovell, p.78). Self-Reliance often aligns more towards civil disobedience that is not aggressive and holds themes that support the ability of society to function without government structures with only human intuition and the spirit of aboriginalism. At the heart of both essays, it is clear that democracies and government structures can both be beneficial or destructive tools, both of which depends on the human population being governed and their recognition of their own power over the government.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph. Self-Reliance. New York: FV Editions. 2014

Lovell, Jarret. Crimes of Dissent: Civil Disobedience, Criminal Justice and the Policies of Conscience. New York: New York University Press. 2009.

Thoreau, Henry. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Irvine: Xist Publishing, 2015.

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