In Megan Marshall’s book on The Peabody Sisters, she states “As she wrestled with the spiritual questions … Elizabeth gravitated toward a communitarian view rather than toward the cult of the self-reliant individual that Emerson and Thoreau would espouse.”1
Ms. Peabody certainly had a more communitarian view than Emerson and Thoreau. However, my view of these men is the following. First, Emerson had spiritual visions of the oneness of the divine that lies behind everything. These visions inhabit his book Nature. Then he starts with self-reliance because everything that we are and do begins with us as individuals. We each can connect ourselves without mediation to the spiritual source. Then in the rest of his writings he explores how we can reach out to others to leaven and influence human society.
Thoreau also had these visions, but does not allude to them specifically. He starts with self-reliance in the same way as Emerson. Then he largely turns away from society while involving himself with nature. His relations with society were primarily in two areas: to preach that we should obey the “higher law” as superior to written law, and to work with the anti-slavery movement through lecturing and assisting former slaves to become free.
Thoreau’s great enthusiasm was nature, and the complex ways in which different species interact with each other. His “broken task” that Emerson refers to in a eulogy at his funeral was nothing less than what we now call Ecology, the attempt to understand these interactions and co-dependencies.
1Megan Marshall, The Peabody Sisters, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005, p. 186.