What is Transcendentalism? Who are the key players in it? Ralph Waldo Emerson plays an important role in this era. Understanding what distinguishes his work can help you to understand the characteristics of the era. In what ways is love manifested in the Transcendentalist movement?
Transcendentalism of the Nineteenth Century
Transcendentalism was America’s first notable intellectual and philosophical movement. It developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the New England region of the United States as a protest against the general state of culture and society. In particular, transcendentalists criticized the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School.
Transcendentalism became a movement of writers and philosophers who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on the idea that perception is better than logic or experience. Among the transcendentalists’ core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both humans and nature. Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions, particularly organized religion and political parties, ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that man is at his best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It was believed that only from such real individuals could true community be formed. Rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German idealism, more generally), the movement developed as a reaction against eighteenth-century rationalism, John Locke’s philosophy of sensualism, and the Manifest Destiny of New England Calvinism. Its fundamental belief was in the unity and immanence of God in the world.
The publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” is usually considered 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. Early in the movement’s history, critics use the term “transcendentalist” as a pejorative, and suggested that the members’ position was beyond sanity and reason.
The transcendentalists varied in their interpretations of how their ideas should manifest. Some among the group linked it with utopian social change; for example, Orestes Brownson connected it with early socialism, while others such as Emerson considered it an exclusively individualist 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. The transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles that were not based on, or falsifiable by, physical experience, but that were derived from the inner spiritual or mental essence of the human. In contrast, they were intimately familiar with the English romantics, and the transcendental movement may be partially described as an American outgrowth of romanticism.
By the late 1840s, Emerson believed the movement was dying out, and even more so after the death of Margaret Fuller in 1850. Fuller was an American journalist, critic, and women’s-rights advocate closely associated with the movement; according to Emerson, “she represents an interesting hour and group in American cultivation.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, was seen as a champion of individualism and a critic of the pressures of society. He disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures. Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay “Nature.” Following this groundbreaking work, he gave a speech entitled, “The American Scholar” in 1837. Emerson’s first two collections of essays, published in 1841 and 1844, represent the core of his thinking.
Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets but developing certain ideas and themes such as individuality, freedom, humankind’s ability to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. While his writing style can be seen as somewhat impenetrable, Emerson’s essays remain among the linchpins of American thinking and have greatly influenced the thinkers, writers, and poets who have followed him.
Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist. He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state.
Among Thoreau’s lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, in which he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay. At the same time, he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life’s true essential needs.
He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Transcendentalists were all from the greater Boston area, mostly men, all white, and most shared a Unitarian faith. Most Black Americans at this time were enslaved. Were there any widely known Black thinkers during this period? Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Frederick Douglass embodied Transcendentalist philosophy. They encountered Transcendentalism as free Black Americans living in the North. Both were well-educated and effective public speakers. Both were engaged in abolition, civil rights, and temperance movements.
Focus on Individualism
Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses the moral worth and value of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance while opposing external interference upon one’s own interests by society or institutions such as the government. Liberalism, existentialism, and anarchism are examples of movements that take the human individual as a central unit of analysis. Individualism is associated with artistic and bohemian interests and lifestyles in which there is a tendency towards self-creation and experimentation as opposed to tradition or popular mass opinions and behaviors, and also with humanist philosophical positions and ethics.
Emerson championed individuality, freedom, and humankind’s ability to realize almost anything. In his essay “Nature,” Emerson asserted that because God’s presence is inherent in both humanity and nature, all people contain seeds of divinity. His essay “Self-Reliance” thoroughly emphasizes the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency and to follow his or her own instincts and ideas.
Questions to Consider: Individualism may seem like an intrinsic characteristic of the people in the West and specifically of the United States, but that ideal evolved. What are the benefits of individualism? What might be its weaknesses?