Study Guide

Society and Solitude

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Society and Solitude Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Society and Solitude is a collection of twelve essays previously delivered as lectures on various occasions and before varied audiences. Each essay is preceded by a few lines of original verse. The volume as a whole lacks the propagandistic fire of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s earlier essays, although there is still a tendency to dwell upon humanity’s better side, almost as though it had no other. Emerson continues also to see the world as filled with good for those who will receive what is offered. One of Emerson’s biographers has called these late writings the cheeriest of Emerson’s essays. Several are more discursive than necessary, but on many pages are the sparkle, wit, and happy phrasing that mark Emerson at his best.

In the title essay, Emerson makes clear that for humanity, both society and solitude are necessary. People differ in their need for these two opposites according to their personalities and their activities. Creative geniuses such as Sir Isaac Newton and Dante Alighieri needed isolation to accomplish their work. Emerson notes, however, that although now and then an ordinary person can and must live alone, “coop up most men and you undo them.” A balance is needed. Humanity should not remain proudly alone nor let itself be vulgarized by too much society; one mood should reinforce the other.

“Civilization” may be considered an essay in definition since much of it is devoted to a description of what civilization is not and what it is. Emerson discusses both the civilized society and the civilized or cultured individual. Such a person is marked by the capacity for self-advancement, by the ability to associate and compare things with one another, and by the ability to move from one idea to another. The civilized society, says Emerson, is one that has progressed to agriculture from war, hunting, and pasturage. This society includes increased means of communication, a division of labor, a raising of the status of women, a diffusion of knowledge, a combining of antagonisms, and even a utilizing of evil so as to produce benefits.

Civilization results from highly complex organization. Climate is often a major force in producing it but, according to Emerson, any society with a high destiny must be moral. The wise person who would be civilized will use the powers of nature, which exist for the individual. The wise will hitch their wagon to a star and let the heavenly powers pull for them. They will work for the highest ends—justice, love, freedom, knowledge, utility. The test of the civilization in which the wise live will be the kind of people their country creates. In the civilized state all public action will be designed to secure the greatest good for the greatest number.

“Art” attempts to define both art and the artist. Emerson begins with the simple statement that art is the “conscious utterance of thought, by speech or action, to any end.” It is the spirit’s voluntary use and combination of things to serve its end; it is the spirit creative. Since this spirit aims at use or at beauty, there are the useful and the fine arts. The universal soul creates all works of art and uses the artist to bring them into being. Thus, all art complements nature. In the useful arts, nature is a tyrant over humanity, forcing humanity to use the tools that nature supplies and to learn which fit best. Turning to the fine arts, such as music, eloquence, poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture, Emerson points out that each has a material basis that hinders the artist who works with it. Language must be converted into poetry, vibrations in the air into music, and stone into sculpture and architecture. The art resides, observes Emerson, in the model, the plan, and the harmonious arrangement of the material the artist uses. As with the useful arts, nature dominates the artist; the artist is the organ through which the universal mind acts. Believing in a moral universe, Emerson sees all great works of art as attuned to moral nature.

The reader may sense, regarding “Eloquence,” that Emerson devoted more space than he needed to this theme. He seeks a distinction between the eloquent person and the mere speaker, and he describes the interrelationships between the speaker and the audience. Much that he says seems rather obvious, the sort of thing a public-speaking teacher might use to begin a course. The orator plays on the audience as a master pianist plays the piano. The audience influences the speaker by its reaction. The consummate speaker has, to begin with, a robust and radiant physical health. The speaker, Emerson states, is personally appealing, and the speaker’s eloquence illustrates the magic of his...

(The entire section is 1915 words.)

Society and Solitude Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981. Notes the reception to Society and Solitude by various critics. Provides an excerpt from the original manuscript that did not appear in the published work. Well-indexed. Features a chronology and comprehensive notes.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2003. This biographical account revisits the life and work of America’s first public intellectual on the occasion of Emerson’s two-hundredth birthday. The index lists the references to Society and Solitude.

Carpenter, Frederic Ives. Emerson Handbook. 1953. Reprint. New York: Hendricks House, 1967. A good research tool, providing background material to the ideas that shape Emerson’s texts. Discusses Emerson’s writing methods and style. Includes bibliographies.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1820-24. Vol. 1. Edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. This volume of Emerson’s journals is rich in comments on key notions found in Society and Solitude.

Lothstein, Arthur S., and Michael Brodrick, eds. New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-first Century. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. Philosophers, poets, and literary critics, including Mark Strand, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Buell, discuss how Emerson’s ideas about the environment, race, politics, spirituality, and other areas remain relevant into the twenty-first century.

Porte, Joel. Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Focuses on Emerson as a writer, analyzing the quality of his prose and the organization of his essays. References to Society and Solitude are listed in the index.

Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Collection of essays in which contributors assess Emerson’s writing, influence, and cultural significance. Chapter 4 examines Emerson as a lecturer.