Ralph Waldo Emerson's Society and Solitude: Summary & Themes

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  • 0:01 'Society and Solitude'
  • 0:44 Overview of the Essay
  • 2:32 Key Themes
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, 'Society and Solitude,' identifies 19th-century transcendentalist themes such as the importance of private contemplation and intuition. We'll be studying these themes in this lesson.

'Society and Solitude'

'Society and Solitude' is an essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1857. Emerson later published a collection of essays with the same name. In this essay, the author discusses the notions of society, or association with other people, and solitude, or being alone. He praises the virtues of solitude, suggesting that private contemplation leads to enlightenment. The essay is representative of the Transcendentalist movement, a nineteenth-century intellectual movement in the United States, since it emphasizes the importance of self-reliance and intuition or feeling.

Overview of the Essay

Emerson begins 'Society and Solitude' with a poem about a man who abandons civil society to live in solitude among the elements of the natural world. The author then describes the time he encountered a humorist, a highly intelligent man who had lost the ability to fraternize with other people. The humorist abandoned the city in which he lived, and took up residence in abandoned pastures. He found that the river was not solitary enough, as the sun and moon accompanied him. The humorist built a house and planted trees to conceal himself from the rest of the world. He took delight when he would encounter neighbors who would say that they had never before observed him. The man desired total solitude. He wanted to discard his 'corporeal jacket,' or physical body, to commune with the stars.

Emerson describes the humorist as an eccentric and philosophical recluse much like himself. Emerson can completely relate to the humorist, since he too feels the necessity of isolation. He implies that genius craves solitude, noting that the best of angels dwell in their own houses of heaven.

Emerson concludes 'Society and Solitude' by arguing for the need for a balance between society and solitude. He admits that total solitude is impractical, but encourages society in moderation, stating that 'people are to be taken in very small doses.' If a man sees few people and finds time for solitude, he will be of sound mind. Emerson argues that it is possible for man to perform certain social roles, while still preserving a unique self in solitude.

Key Themes

In 'Society and Solitude,' Emerson contrasts solitude, the mark of genius, with society or consociation. He describes solitude as a disease, since society encourages healthy fraternity and fellowship among people. He claims that there are only two cures for people like him who crave solitude: to become self-reliant or to adopt a religion of love.

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