Transcendentalism was a group of new ideas in literature, religion, culture, and philosophy that emerged in New England in the early to mid-nineteenth century. It is sometimes called American Transcendentalism to distinguish it from other uses of the word transcendental.
Transcendentalism began as a protest against the general state of culture and society at the time, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian church, which was taught at Harvard Divinity School. Among Transcendentalists' core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state which "transcends" the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. Prominent Transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, William Ellery Channing, Frederick Henry Hedge, Theodore Parker, George Putnam, and Sophia Peabody, the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For a time, Peabody and Hawthorne lived at the Brook Farm Transcendentalist utopian commune.
As early as the second and third centuries, a view of God as a unity and the suggestion that Jesus was human and not a deity emerged in the doctrines of monarchianism and the teachings of Arius, later declared heretical by the Church. During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, certain rationalists revived the Platonic emphasis on reason and the unity of God, and the Socinians emphasized the humanity of Jesus. British and American Unitarianism originated from Calvinism and an increasingly scientific view of the universe, which inspired more liberal clergy to emphasize reason and morals. It developed into a religious movement that stressed the use of reason in religion, and denied the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. American transcendentalism emerged in New England Congregationalist churches that rejected the eighteenth century revival movement in favor of moderation, reason, and morals. In 1787, the Anglican King’s Chapel, which had been abandoned by its British rector after the American Revolution in 1776, became Unitarian. In 1825, the creation of the American Unitarian Association, under the leadership of William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), made what had previously been a liberal wing of Congregationalism into a separate denomination.
During the first decade of the nineteenth century, Unitarians predominated over Harvard with the election of Rev. Henry Ware Sr. as Hollis Professor of Divinity in 1805, and of Rev. John Thornton Kirkland as President in 1810. The younger Transcendentalists were educated at Harvard, and it was there that they began to protest against the state of intellectualism at the university and the doctrine of the Unitarian church which was taught at Harvard Divinity School. Unitarianism had encouraged the individual to exercise intellect and free conscience in a quest for divine meaning, and Transcendentalism was a natural consequence for those who were not satisfied with sobriety, mildness, and calm rationalism and sought a more intense spiritual experience. As Minister at the Second Church in Boston, Emerson, publicly rejected the practice of the Lord’s Supper in 1832, and left his pastorate, renouncing what he termed the "corpse-cold Unitarianism of Brattle Street and Harvard College." In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson concluded his Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Address, The American Scholar, with these words:
We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. The dread of man and the love of man shall be a wall of defense and a wreath of joy around all. A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.
Some scholars depict Unitarianism as a bridge between Calvinism, which had conceived of religion, in part, as humanity's quest to discover its place in the divine scheme, and the means of spiritual regeneration; and Transcendentalism. By abandoning the notion of original sin and human imperfectability, Unitarianism prepared for the possibility that man could live in joy and wonder, without self-accusation. The Transcendentalists believed that finding God depended on inner striving toward spiritual communion with the divine spirit.
The Transcendentalists drew their inspiration from many sources: Platonism and Neoplatonism; Indian and Chinese scriptures; the writings of mystics such as Emanuel Swedenborg and Jakob Böhme; the post-Kantian idealism of Thomas Carlyle and Victor Cousin; and German and English Romanticism as expressed in the literature of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Goethe. Under these influences, the Transcendentalists developed their ideas of human "Reason," or intuition, and made a distinction between “true reason” and a merely analytic understanding.
Transcendentalism began as a protest against the general state of culture and society of the time, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian church which was taught at Harvard Divinity School. Among Transcendentalists' core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state, which transcends the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the logical deduction or the doctrines of established religions. They emphasized the essential unity of all creation and the innate goodness of humanity, which they believed would manifest itself if given the freedom to do so.
Like the Romantics, the Transcendentalists believed that subjective intuition was at least as reliable a source of truth as the empirical investigation which underlay both deism and the natural theology of the Unitarians. In 1833, Frederic Henry Hedge, once professor of logic at Harvard and now minister in West Cambridge, published an article in The Christian Examiner, entitled "Coleridge," explaining and defending the Romantic/Kantian philosophy, and proposing that a correspondence existed between internal human reality and external spiritual reality. The Transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles which were not based on, or falsifiable by, the experience of the physical senses, but derived from the inner, spiritual or mental essence of the human. Immanuel Kant had called "all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects." The Transcendentalists, largely unacquainted with German philosophy in the original, 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. They were, however, well-acquainted with the ideas of the English Romantics, and the Transcendental movement may be partially described as a slightly later, American outgrowth of Romanticism. Another major influence was the mystical spiritualism of Emanuel Swedenborg.
The Transcendentalists also drew inspiration from Indian philosophy. Emerson read fully the available philosophic literature from India. In a letter to Max Mueller, Emerson wrote: "All my interest is in Marsh's Manu, then Wilkins' Bhagavat Geeta, Burnouf's Bhagavat Purana, and Wilson's Vishnu Purana, yes, and few other translations. I remember I owed my first taste for this fruit to Cousin's sketch, in his first lecture, of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna and I still prize the first chapters of the Bhagavat as wonderful." Thoreau was fascinated by Sir William Jones' translation of The Laws of Manu,which he found and read in Emerson's library. Thoreau read the Dharma Sastra in 1841, when he was twenty-four, and had the Bhagavad Gita with him during his stay by Walden Pond.
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.
The publication of Emerson's 1836, essay Nature is usually taken to be the watershed moment at which Transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson closed the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from the new idealist philosophy:
So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect—What is truth? and of the affections—What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. … Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.
In the same year, Transcendentalism became a coherent movement with the founding of the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1836, by prominent New England intellectuals including George Putnam, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Henry Hedge. In 1840, Emerson and Margaret Fuller founded The Dial (1840–44), the magazine in which some of the best writings by minor Transcendentalists appeared.
The group was concentrated between 1830 and 1860 in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, the home of many of the literary members such as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts, Theodore Parker, Jones Very, Orrestes Brownson, George Ripley, James Freeman Clarke, the Peabody Sisters, and W.E. and W.H. Channing. However, the influence of Transcendentalism was far broader, reaching Walt Whitman in Brooklyn, Emily Dickinson in Amherst, and the Hudson River School of painters in New York.
The practical aims of the Transcendentalists were varied; some among the group linked it with utopian social change, such as Brownson, who associated it explicitly with early socialism, while others found it an exclusively individual and idealist project. In his 1842 lecture, "The Transcendentalist," Emerson 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.
Transcendentalist ideas permeated American thought and art throughout much of the nineteenth century. The Transcendentalists stood at the center of the American Renaissance (roughly designated from 1835-1880) in literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. The writings of the Transcendentalists laid the philosophical foundations for the work of contemporaries such as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, though they did not embrace Transcendentalism, responded to the existential issues it raised. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a novel, The Blithedale Romance, satirizing the movement, and based it on his experiences at Brook Farm, a short-lived utopian community founded on Transcendental principles.
By rejecting the conventions of eighteenth century thought, the Transcendentalists initiated a critical examination of the whole established order. Many of them were leaders in humanitarian reform movements such as suffrage for women, better conditions for workers, temperance, modifications of dress and diet, the rise of free religion, and educational innovation. Some experimented with socialistic ideal communities, such Alcott’s Fruitlands and Ripley’s Brook Farm. The philosophy, aesthetics, and democratic aspirations of the Transcendentalists influenced the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, the environmental planning of Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford, the architecture (and writings) of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and the American “modernism” in the arts promoted by Alfred Stieglitz.
Another alternative meaning for transcendentalism is the classical philosophy that God transcends the manifest world. John Scotus Erigena expressed this concept to the Frankish king Charles the Bald in 840, when he said, "We do not know what God is. God himself doesn't know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being."
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