This article is about the 19th-century American movement. For other uses, see Transcendence (disambiguation).
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s in the eastern United States. It arose as a reaction to protest against the general state of intellectualism and spirituality at the time. The doctrine of the Unitarian church as taught at Harvard Divinity School was of particular interest.
Transcendentalism emerged from "English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher, the skepticism of David Hume", and the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant and German Idealism. Miller and Versluis regard Emanuel Swedenborg as a pervasive influence on transcendentalism. It was also strongly influenced by Hindu texts on philosophy of the mind and spirituality, especially the Upanishads.
A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Adherents believe that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, and they have faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent.
Transcendentalism emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism. Adherents believe that individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention and deference to past masters.
Transcendentalism is closely related to Unitarianism, the dominant religious movement in Boston in the early nineteenth century. It started to develop after Unitarianism took hold at Harvard University, following the elections of Henry Ware as the Hollis Professor of Divinity in 1805 and of John Thornton Kirkland as President in 1810. Transcendentalism was not a rejection of Unitarianism; rather, it developed as an organic consequence of the Unitarian emphasis on free conscience and the value of intellectual reason. The transcendentalists were not content with the sobriety, mildness, and calm rationalism of Unitarianism. Instead, they longed for a more intense spiritual experience. Thus, transcendentalism was not born as a counter-movement to Unitarianism, but as a parallel movement to the very ideas introduced by the Unitarians.
Transcendentalism became a coherent movement and a sacred organization with the founding of the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1836 by prominent New England intellectuals, including George Putnam (1807–78, the Unitarian minister in Roxbury),Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederic Henry Hedge. From 1840, the group frequently published in their journal The Dial, along with other venues.
Second wave of transcendentalists
By the late 1840s, Emerson believed that the movement was dying out, and even more so after the death of Margaret Fuller in 1850. "All that can be said," Emerson wrote, "is that she represents an interesting hour and group in American cultivation." There was, however, a second wave of transcendentalists, including Moncure Conway, Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Samuel Longfellow and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn. Notably, the transgression of the spirit, most often evoked by the poet's prosaic voice, is said to endow in the reader a sense of purposefulness. This is the underlying theme in the majority of transcendentalist essays and papers—all of which are centered on subjects which assert a love for individual expression. Though the group was mostly made up of struggling aesthetes, the wealthiest among them was Samuel Gray Ward, who, after a few contributions to The Dial, focused on his banking career.
Transcendentalists are strong believers in the power of the individual. It focuses primarily on personal freedom. Their beliefs are closely linked with those of the Romantics, but differ by an attempt to embrace or, at least, to not oppose the empiricism of science.
Transcendentalists desire to ground their religion and philosophy in principles based upon the German Romanticism of Herder and Schleiermacher. Transcendentalism merged "English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume", and the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German Idealism more generally), interpreting Kant's a priori categories as a priori knowledge. Early transcendentalists were largely unacquainted with German philosophy in the original and relied primarily on the writings of Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Victor Cousin, Germaine de Staël, and other English and French commentators for their knowledge of it. The transcendental movement can be described as an American outgrowth of English Romanticism.
Transcendentalists believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community can form. Even with this necessary individuality, transcendentalists also believe that all people are outlets for the "Over-soul." Because the Over-soul is one, this unites all people as one being.[need quotation to verify] Emerson alludes to this concept in the introduction of the American Scholar address, "that there is One Man, - present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man." Such an ideal is in harmony with Transcendentalist individualism, as each person is empowered to behold within him or herself a piece of the divine Over-soul.
Transcendentalism has been directly influenced by Indian religions.[note 1] Thoreau in Walden spoke of the Transcendentalists' debt to Indian religions directly:
In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma, and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water-jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.
In 1844, the first English translation of the Lotus Sutra was included in The Dial, a publication of the New England Transcendentalists, translated from French by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.
Transcendentalists differ in their interpretations of the practical aims of will. Some adherents link it with utopian social change; Brownson, for example, connected it with early socialism, but others consider it an exclusively individualist and idealist project. Emerson believed the latter; in his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist", he suggested that the goal of a purely transcendental outlook on life was impossible to attain in practice:
You will see by this sketch that there is no such thing as a transcendental party; that there is no pure transcendentalist; that we know of no one but prophets and heralds of such a philosophy; that all who by strong bias of nature have leaned to the spiritual side in doctrine, have stopped short of their goal. We have had many harbingers and forerunners; but of a purely spiritual life, history has afforded no example. I mean, we have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels' food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands. ...Shall we say, then, that transcendentalism is the Saturnalia or excess of Faith; the presentiment of a faith proper to man in his integrity, excessive only when his imperfect obedience hinders the satisfaction of his wish.
Influence on other movements
Further information: History of New Thought
Transcendentalism is, in many aspects, the first notable American intellectual movement. It has inspired succeeding generations of American intellectuals, as well as some literary movements.
Transcendentalism influenced the growing movement of "Mental Sciences" of the mid-19th century, which would later become known as the New Thought movement. New Thought considers Emerson its intellectual father.Emma Curtis Hopkins "the teacher of teachers", Ernest Holmes, founder of Religious Science, the Fillmores, founders of Unity, and Malinda Cramer and Nona L. Brooks, the founders of Divine Science, were all greatly influenced by Transcendentalism.
Transcendentalism also influenced Hinduism. Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, rejected Hindu mythology, but also the Christian trinity. He found that Unitarianism came closest to true Christianity, and had a strong sympathy for the Unitarians, who were closely connected to the Transcendentalists. Ram Mohan Roy founded a missionary committee in Calcutta, and in 1828 asked for support for missionary activities from the American Unitarians. By 1829, Roy had abandoned the Unitarian Committee, but after Roy's death, the Brahmo Samaj kept close ties to the Unitarian Church, who strived towards a rational faith, social reform, and the joining of these two in a renewed religion. Its theology was called "neo-Vedanta" by Christian commentators, and has been highly influential in the modern popular understanding of Hinduism, but also of modern western spirituality, which re-imported the Unitarian influences in the disguise of the seemingly age-old Neo-Vedanta.
Major figures in the transcendentalist movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Amos Bronson Alcott. Other prominent transcendentalists included Louisa May Alcott, Charles Timothy Brooks, Orestes Brownson, William Ellery Channing, William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Christopher Pearse Cranch, John Sullivan Dwight, Convers Francis, William Henry Furness, Frederic Henry Hedge, Sylvester Judd, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, George Ripley, Thomas Treadwell Stone, Jones Very, and Walt Whitman.
Early in the movement's history, the term "Transcendentalists" was used as a pejorative term by critics, who were suggesting their position was beyond sanity and reason.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a novel, The Blithedale Romance (1852), satirizing the movement, and based it on his experiences at Brook Farm, a short-lived utopian community founded on transcendental principles.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story, "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" (1841), in which he embedded elements of deep dislike for transcendentalism, calling its followers "Frogpondians" after the pond on Boston Common. The narrator ridiculed their writings by calling them "metaphor-run" lapsing into "mysticism for mysticism's sake", and called it a "disease." The story specifically mentions the movement and its flagship journal The Dial, though Poe denied that he had any specific targets. In Poe's essay "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846), he offers criticism denouncing "the excess of the suggested meaning... which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists."
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- ^Versluis: "In American Transcendentalism and Asian religions, I detailed the immense impact that the Euro-American discovery of Asian religions had not only on European Romanticism, but above all, on American Transcendentalism. There I argued that the Transcendentalists' discovery of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Vedas, the Upanishads, and other world scriptures was critical in the entire movement, pivotal not only for the well-known figures like Emerson and Thoreau, but also for lesser known figures like Samuel Johnson and William Rounsville Alger. That Transcendentalism emerged out of this new knowledge of the world's religious traditions I have no doubt."
Transcendental Ideas: Definitions
Meg Brulatour, Virginia Commonwealth University
Gertrude Reif Hughes calls Emerson a "vitalist" in Emerson's Demanding Optimism. Thoreau might better appreciate the term; it has a robust ring to it. She quotes The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought as defining vitalism as "a miscellany of beliefs united by the contention that living processes are not to be explained in terms of the material composition and physico-chemical performances of living bodies" (162). This returns to Kant; it seems that to be a transcendentalist, one must first be a vitalist, although critics of transcendentalism would say "miscellany" is a correct if somewhat mild term for its rather fluid tenets. (Charles Dickens said, "I was given to understand that whatever was unintelligible would certainly be Transcendental.") But take "vitalism" one step further: animation is a vital principle in its own right, yes � but if the "material composition," etc., are the symbols of that lively spirit � then Emerson's vision of transcendentalism is clarified. The universe is one great entity, "composed of Nature and the Soul . . . . Nature is the symbol of the spirit" (Nature).
Transcendentalism earned a reputation as a "collection of miscellany" because such variety of thought is built into the definition. Emerson and Thoreau admonish their audiences to go their own way rather than emulate the authors. Emerson declared he wanted no followers; it would disappoint him if his ideas created hangers-on rather than "independence;" he would then doubt his own theories and fear he was guilty of some "impurity of insight." Discipleship would automatically break two prime tenets of transcendentalism: first, that individualism stems from listening to one's "inner voice;" and that one's life is guided by one's intuition; societal leadership is not necessary nor desirable. However, under that light, many written works fall under the title "transcendentalism"! After all, particularly in modern poetry, the author usually is expressing a very personal point of view, frequently framed in an "unconventional" meter that further expresses his or her meaning.
Ralph Waldo Emerson gave the German philosopher Immanuel Kant the credit for making "Transcendentalism" a familiar term. Contrary to Locke's theory, that before any concept could be intellectualized it must first be experienced by the senses, Kant said there were experiences that could be acquired through "intuitions of the mind;" he referred to the "native spontaneity of the human mind." In his essay, "Nature," Emerson explained how every idea has its source in natural phenomena, and that the attentive person can "see" those ideas in nature. Intuition allowed the transcendentalist to disregard external authority and to rely, instead, on direct experience.
In his essay "The Transcendentalist," Emerson explained transcendentalism is "Idealism as it appears in 1842" and linked it with "the very oldest thoughts" such as Buddhism. Transcendentalism in the 19th Century was more than a trend in American literature. It was a philosophical movement, but it owed its development as much to democracy as to European philosophers. Transcendentalism centered on the divinity of each individual; but this divinity could be self-discovered only if the person had the independence of mind to do so. American thought lent itself to this concept of independence. If one can judge by the voter participation in presidential elections (at least 70% of those registered to vote did so, throughout Emerson's lifetime and up to the turn of the century), Americans certainly thought their individual voices were of value.
Emerson, and others, believed in what he called the Oversoul. (Walt Whitman called it the "float").There is an inner "spark" contained by and connecting all facets of nature, including humankind, which can be discovered not through logical reasoning but only through intuition, the creative insight and interpretation of one's own inner voices. Transcendentalists called for an independence from organized religion; they saw no need for any intercession between God and man. Divinity is self-contained, internalized in every being. Transcendentalism gives credence to the unlimited potential of human ability to connect with both the natural and spiritual world. The chief aim is to become fully aware not only of what our senses record, but also to recognize the ability of our inner voice�our intuition�to wisely and correctly interpret the sensory input.
Transcendentalists were idealistic and optimistic because they believed they could find answers to whatever they were seeking. All they had to do was learn to read, through their intuition, the external symbols of nature and translate them into spiritual facts. A transcendentalist declared there was meaning in everything and that meaning was good, all connected by and parts of a divine plan. Emerson refuted evil by insisting it was not an entity in itself but rather simply the absence of good. If good was allowed, evil dissipated. One ray of light can penetrate darkness. According to the transcendentalists, everyone had the power to "transcend" the seeming confusion and chaos of the world and understand nature's signs. Everything on earth has the divine "spark" within and thus is all part of a whole. This philosophy led to an optimistic emphasis on individualism. One aspect of individualism is the value of the individual over society. To "transcend" society one must first be able to look past and beyond it. One must follow his instincts and not conform to what society dictates. Although society will influence an individual towards conformity, it is important to remain true to one's self and to one's identity. Secondly, individualism includes being self-reliant. In his essay, "Self-Reliance", Emerson urges the reader to "trust thyself."
Anti-transcendentalists rejected this optimistic outlook on humanity and life. They declared such optimism naïve and unrealistic. The anti-transcendentalists reflected a more pessimistic attitude and focused on man's uncertainty and limited potential in the universe. They viewed nature as vast and incomprehensible, a reflection of the struggle between good and evil. The anti-transcendentalist felt humans were depraved and had to struggle for goodness. Although they thought goodness was attainable for some, they believed in evil as its own entity. They believed sin was an active force; it was not just the absence of good; they really did think, on some level, that the devil existed. The anti-transcendentalists believed in a higher authority and that nature is ultimately the creation and possession of God � and can not be understood by humans.
Anti-transcendentalists feared that people who desired complete individualism would give into the worse angles of man's nature. They viewed transcendentalism as selfish and impractical. Anti-transcendentalists were concerned that without external constraints, such as societal mores, people would be motivated only by their immediate need and desire for sensory gratification. Here, they apparently missed a basic idea of transcendentalism: the call to rise above "animalistic" impulses as one moves from the rational to the spiritual realm.
Lee Gentry, Virginia Commonwealth University
In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist":
The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own . . . .Is Transcendentalism any more than Idealism? Can it offer the human race any profound wisdom and guidance as we live our lives in a world where there seems to be constant need to validate human existence? Is it then enough for a philosophy to encourage instinct and reason and self-reliance, and to profess as its only doctrine that God is of immanent principle in every individual?
Is transcendentalism just another sect, another tributary of a major religion, trying in a unique way to find the light that leads to truth? Are the transcendentalist followers really no different than the Christians and the Jews and Buddhists all who claim their way to be the only way? Possibly, but rather than view the transcendentalists as egotistical men and women rooted in a faith (perhaps to others thwarted in vain) we might consider the side of transcendentalists that allows the encompassing of all religions and does not exclude the religions of the world. Thus transcendentalism, in its broadest sense, has no doctrine of expectations, but believes the spiritual reflection of each person as they move from the rational to the spiritual is the very essence of life. And this is an individual accomplishment.
The word transcend implies a movement toward something. If transcendentalism is considered a religion it is the all-encompassing religion that transcends all other man-made philosophies. As Thoreau said "Give me one world at time" and we might consider his purpose in these words. Does he mean we are to enjoy this earthy world and not consider what lies ahead or beyond the physical? I think not. Not in the sense that Thoreau would justify ignoring the world around us as a miracle in itself. He certainly made it clear that even in Concord there were plenty of miracles to explore without traveling too far! Yet the transcending of the physical self still applies here in this message-- to live in the physical and live one world at a time. Yet it is in this living we move toward the conscience of the reality we cannot see, and this is part of Thoreau's point.
The nature that reveals (itself) is only half of the mystery of life. If we look to nature as our guide we will discover we are not including the other half of the miracle�the part we don't see�the part that science is merely at the brink of discovering. With this thought in mind we can understand Whitman's point, "A mouse is a miracle enough to stagger quintillions of infidels." In otherwords, the very components of the mouse are almost beyond human comprehension. Likewise, if the mouse is representation of one of the smallest miracles what are we not seeing? This is where (I think) transcendentalism retains its most power. There is a concealed reality�there is a beginning with no beginning that we, as humans cannot see�the mystery among mysteries. It is in embracing the smallest of miracles on a daily basis�such as the leaves on a tree and the flower only half bloomed, that we begin to understand the reality we experience is relative to our thought process. To transcend our 'thinking reality' we begin to transcend human limitation and move toward divine perfection. (For Emerson the self and self-reliance is the way to knowing the source of all creation, divine perfection or the Over-soul.)
I believe there is no limit to one's practicing transcendentalism. We know from our studies the most brilliant of minds think differently�and are not only allowed to, but encouraged to do so. That which is progressive is transcendental. Thus it is a possibility that the creed of Transcendentalism would state that the only limitation in finding God is in not finding oneself.
Bryan Hileman, Virginia Commonwealth University
Transcendentalism is not a metaphysical system. It is rather a corpus of ideas, some metaphysical, some ethical, originally held by a circle of friends and acquaintances in New England during the early to middle 19th century. These ideas were a combination of Neo-Platonism, Swedenbourgian mysticism, Romanticism, German Idealistic philosophy, reaction against Empiricism a la Hume, New England Puritanism and a dash of personal genius. Transcendentalism was both a highly personal, idiosyncratic creation of Emerson and others and an ambient cloud which first materialized over Massachusetts in the 1830's. For Emerson, transcendentalism was "Idealism for 1842." If I may add, it was Idealism for Emerson in 1842.
So what were these beliefs? At its base, transcendentalism is certainly on the idealistic side of the great divide between idealism and realism. There is an ideal world that coexists with the real world, a world of noumena and a world of phenomena. Nature parallels the individual mind. The natural, sensual world of phenomena is a representation by which we may better comprehend the world of noumena. God is energy, a force, not a particular separate being. God breathes through nature and man attempts to open himself up to this influx. Nothing is static. The greatest goal is to achieve the transcendental moment, the moment when one is open to the to and fro flow of the influx. Though not essentially a religion, transcendentalism is fraught with theological consequences. A case could be made for transcendentalism as a form of secular religion, as opposed to revealed religion. Man is at the center of a fundamentally moral universe.
Ethically the central concept is self-reliance. One's own soul is capable of holding the universe; it follows that one need be true to oneself, or rather the God in oneself.; Emerson strongly believed in a fundamental morality. The sensual side of man is regarded as mostly evil in that it distracts man from higher pursuits. Strong emotion of the baser varieties is discouraged. There is also a tendency towards hero worship, the holding up of a few great men as exemplars for the great mass of men.
Shannon Riley, Virginia Commonwealth University
The Latin translation of Transcendentalism is "overpassing" and a good place to start to understand the basic tenets shared by its adherents. I think that the term transcendentalism means different things to different individuals, which allows us to fully understand Thoreau when he once wrote, "I should have told them at once that I was a Transcendentalist-- That would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations" and also Emerson when he wrote "to be great is to be misunderstood."
Transcendentalism embodied the adventurous spirit of a young United States, encouraging others to eschew material things and not be fettered by ideas of the past. Individual intuition is the highest source of knowledge. Through this spirit it encouraged those people to cherish individualism over established political and social order. It stressed the importance of harmony with nature�God was imminent in our natural surroundings, there's a goodness that's inherent in all mankind. Emerson said: "Standing on the bare ground,--my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulating through me; I am part or parcel of God" (Nature). One of the most important aspects of the movement was the publication of The Dial, which allowed a new crop of inspired and talented writers to establish themselves in American history.
Transcendentalism is an idealism that encompasses a diverse and sometimes confusing set of beliefs regarding man's role in nature and the universe. Loosely, the doctrine refers to any view which holds that there's an aspect to reality that is higher than (or transcends) our everyday life and world. Emerson was the most notable Transcendentalist-- a great thinker with deep insight, and over time his ideas evolved and grew; however, he was always seeking "To what end is nature?" Transcendentalists eschewed materialism, and advocated a philosophy of self-reliance and self-fulfillment. Living in accordance with nature and a perpetual striving toward cultivation of character were other common attitudes. However, like most philosophies, not all transcendentalists strictly adhered to basis premises, which makes transcendentalism a thought provoking and challenging belief.
Transcendentalism had a very large impact on American literature. Emerson's ideas published in "Essays" (1841) probably did the most to ensure his lasting reputation. And it has been said that without Emerson's endorsements, Thoreau wouldn't have been anywhere near as well known as he is today. Modern day writers are still moved and inspired by Emerson's writings�"Emerson's persisting influence upon twentieth century American writers is evident in astonishing permutations, on writers diverse as Theodore Dreiser, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, his namesake Ralph Waldo Ellison, and A. R. Ammons." (Baym, 317).