Transcendentalism was a nineteenth-century literary
and philosophical movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret
Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and a small but active circle of New
England educators, religious leaders, and social reformers. The movement
began as an informal Boston discussion club. However, its influence gradually
rippled outward to affect the values and beliefs not only of later U.S.
writers (from Walt Whitman and John Muir to Robert Frost and William Carlos
Williams) but of Americans in general. And though its role as a guiding
force in American life and letters began subsiding well before the Civil
War, several of its main ideas and concerns (e.g., individualism, self-improvement,
spiritualism, and moral protest) are still engrained in U.S. cultural practices
and political attitudes today.
||". . . When every voice is raised for a new
road or another statue or a subscription of stock; for an improvement in
dress, or dentistry; for a new house or a larger business; for a political
party, or the division of an estate;--will you not tolerate one or two
solitary voices in the land, speaking for thoughts and principles not marketable
or perishable?"--Emerson, "The Transcendentalist" (1842).
Although the Transcendentalist movement never produced
a founding document or manifesto, Emerson's "Nature" essay (1836) sounded
its inspirational keynote, while the Dial (a quarterly journal established
in 1840 and edited by Fuller) served as its more or less official mouthpiece.
The closest thing to a definition of the movement appears in Emerson's
1842 essay "The Transcendentalist," which proclaims not only what Transcendentalism
is ("Transcendentalism . . . is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842")
but even more emphatically what it is not: "there is no such thing
as a Transcendental party."
As one might expect from a philosophy conceived by
a group of outspoken eccentrics and flinty non-conformists, Transcendentalism
is notoriously hard to systematize and pin down. Nevertheless, out of the
casual hodge-podge of essays, sermons, addresses, journal articles, notebook
entries, and full-scale literary artifacts (especially Walden and
of Grass) produced by its various sympathizers and fellow travelers,
it is still possible to identify some of the movement's main sources and
precursors as well as several of its central tenets and basic principles.
Sources and Influences
in many respects an intellectual potpourri, a New England chowder blended
from a variety of philosophical and religious ingredients, both foreign
and domestic. Among the earlier traditions that contributed to its development
Puritanism. From the first Europeans to settle in New England,
nineteenth-century Americans inherited the mental habit of regarding natural
objects and events as meaningful hieroglyphs--signs and symbols of a higher
reality. Similarly, from the Puritan practice of typology (a technique
of Biblical interpretation whereby events in the Old Testament are understood
to prefigure or foreshadow events in the New, and history itself is interpreted
as a gradual unfolding or realization of Biblical prophecy), Transcendentalists
learned to look beyond the present--with its ephemeral parade of day-to-day
a higher, more enduring world of types and universals.
Platonism and neo-platonism. When Emerson declared that much of
Transcendentalism was "not new," but on the contrary extremely old,
he was presumably pointing to one of the movement's ultimate philosophical
sources: the Idealism of Plato and Plotinus. In the tradition of these
thinkers and their Enlightenment successors Berkeley and Hegel, the Transcendentalists
insisted that the ultimate realities of the universe are ideas,
not things. So it is not surprising that against a rising cultural tide
of materialism, consumerism, and physical comfort, Emerson, Thoreau, and
their supporters clung fast to the view that the truly good life is spiritual
and intellectual. "Be a Columbus," Thoreau advised, "to whole new continents
and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought."
Kantian metaphysics. In his essay on Transcendentalism, Emerson
cites the philosphy of Immanuel Kant as an important framework and inspiration
for the movement. Even the word "Transcendentalism," Emerson notes, comes
from Kant's view that ultimate reality transcends the limits of our understanding.
Kant postulated the existence of certain a priori concepts or innate categories
(including, for examples, our ideas of space, time, unity, nullity, number,
etc.) that mediate all of our knowledge and precondition our view of the
external world. Hence we can never actually know (but can
only intuit or surmise) the true nature of things. The so-called noumena
(higher or ultimate realities--i.e., things as they actually are) are
beyond our ken; we can know them only as phenomena (that is, only
as as they appear through the lens of human perception).
Romanticism. Transcendentalism was strongly influenced by European
Romanticism. The social and political views of Rousseau, the radical
protestantism and defiant individualism of Blake, the scientific and metaphysical
speculations of Goethe, the celebrations of mind and imagination of Coleridge,
and the reverence for nature and solitude characteristic of Wordsworth--all
of these views find their American restatement, adaptation, or counterpart
in the writings of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau.
Beliefs and Principles
Orientalism and mysticism. Emerson owned an extensive library of
Oriental literature in translation and was well versed in the texts and
sacred writings of Hinduism (the Vedas and Upanishads), Buddhism, Confusianism,
and Islam. Thoreau was introduced to Oriental religion and literature at
Harvard and maintained an avid interest in Eastern spiritual lore throughout
his life. Whitman's interest in the Orient, though less formal and disciplined,
was just as keen as that of Emerson and Thoreau, as is evident from even
a cursory reading of Leaves of Grass. In addition to their belief
in cosmic unity, in the ultimate interconnection and harmony of all things,
these authors also absorbed from their Oriental sources the view that the
phenomenal world--Nature--is a sort of Mayan veil which partly reveals,
partly conceals, an ultimate Oneness.
"Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict
myself." (Thus Whitman at the end of "Song of Myself"; in effect breezily
enlarging on Emerson's remark that "a petty consistency is the hobgoblin
of little minds.") The experienced reader soon learns to expect very little
in the way of logic, mathematical clarity, or even ordinary consistency
in the views of Transcendentalists. Transcendentalism is more an outlook
or frame of mind than an actual philosophy--though it is still possible
to identify a few basic beliefs and fundamental principles. To wit:
Idealism. Some of the Transcendentalists were
Christian; others were not. Emerson and William Ellery Channing were Unitarians.
Thoreau, their disciple, was a thoroughgoing Pagan. Whitman, who claimed
to worship "the spread of my own body," celebrated sex and physical appetite.
Yet each of these figures shared a fundamental belief in a higher reality
of ideas--in a metaphysical realm of spirit that is screened, and
yet symbolically revealed, by the material world
Pantheism, "Natural Supernaturalism," and Cosmic
Piety. In certain respects Transcendentalism was designed to be a sort
of American-style natural religion. The Transcendentalists looked upon
nature and the physical world as the manifestation of a divine, yet impersonal
Power. Like the Deists of the Enlightenment and the Stoics of Roman antiquity,
they did not worship the supernatural in a direct way, but rather admired
and revered it via the natural, its visible image and shadow. Similarly,
they viewed the cosmos as a vast, all-embracing whole--a true Universe
(or oneness) in which every individual thing forms part of an intricate
and larger harmony (cf. Emerson's term "Over-soul").
Optimism. No one can accuse the caustic Emerson
(whose denunciations of American imbecility fill his journal and whose
writings influenced Nietzsche), or the misanthropic Thoreau, or the tortured
Whitman (a Civil War nurse and closet homosexual) of being rosy Panglosses
or sentimental Pollyannas. It is true, however, that the tragic and sinister
aspects of human existence receive but slight mention in their work (especially
in contrast to the prominent role assigned to evil and the demonic in the
work of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville--their dark opposites.) In any case,
through all their edginess and crankiness, their outspoken social criticism
and moral protest, the Transcendentalists, on the whole, remained fundamental
optimists, convinced of the essential goodness and purposefulness of life.
|"The landscape, the figures, Boston, London, are facts as fugitive
as any institution past, or any whiff of mist or smoke, and so is society,
and so is the world. The soul looketh steadily forwards, creating a world
before her, leaving worlds behind." Emerson, "The Over-Soul" (1838).