Definition of Transcendentalism
The term Transcendentalism or Transcendentalist movement which began flourishing in the early 19th century America, especially in New England, was based on some of the concepts of Transcendental Philosophy but did not strictly follow it.
In American history “transcendentalism” was mostly used in american literature as a literary form having a semi religious nature.
The formation of the transcendental movement was in 1836 with the establishment of the Transcendental Club of Boston, Massachusetts.
The early transcendentalists included the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, the feminist, social reformer, and author Margaret Fuller, a minister Theodore Parker, and the naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau.
Beliefs and Ideas
The club’s specific beliefs or theories do not seem to have been concretely stated. Their transcendentalism seemed to be more of a combination of intellectual, aesthetic, nature, and spiritual attributes. James Freemen Clarke, a member, later said “We are called like-minded because no two of us think alike.”
This might have been a facetious statement, but it was not groundless.
Although the club as a whole held no specific doctrine, there was an anonymous pamphlet written mostly likely by Charles Mayo Ellis (1818-1878), which was entitled An Essay on Transcendentalism, that stated the most commonly held principles of the group. “Transcendentalism… maintains that man has ideas, that come not through the five senses, or the powers of reasoning, but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world,” and “it asserts that man has something besides the body of flesh, a spiritual body, with senses to perceive what is true, and right and beautiful, and a natural love for these, as the body for its food.”
The transcendentalists’ concept of a spiritual, inner body within the physical body of man was termed the oversoul, the conscience, or borrowing from the Quakers, the inner light. “Their emphasis on the innate worth of the individual was thought as a logical spiritual extension of the political principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence.”
The vigorous seedbed in New England for transcendentalism during the early half of the 19th century was among Unitarian ministers who were disappointed in Unitarianism at that time. Ralph Waldo Emerson was among them since he had resigned the ministry of the Second Church of Boston in 1832 because he felt uncomfortable administrating Communion. Emerson, like others, rejected the narrow definition which the term “Christian” implied when referring to God. New england transcendentalists preferred the term “theist” which seemed to then a more universal designation of the divinity.
This coincided with the premise of the American transcendentalists who opposed Unitarianism because it was based on the sensationalism of John Locke which “insisted that only that knowledge which could be demonstrated to the senses was valid.” Emerson claimed this amounted to “‘a cold intellectualism’ that seemed to destroy the validity of man’s conscience.”
Ralph waldo Emerson and his friends were searching for a philosophy with a more broad moral and aesthetic appeal. This they discovered in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the German transcendentalists of the 18th century. Such philosophy entered America through the writings and translations of Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose Aids to Reflection, translated by James Marsh in 1829, was very influential.
These German influences were not the only sources from which American transcendentalism grew. The early American transcendentalists were very selective in the evolution of their philosophy and borrowed ideas from their extensively widespread readings. Such works included Oriental writings such as the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism and the Sayings of Confucius. Other writings included those of French authors Madame de Stael, Victor Cousin, and Francois M. C. Fourier; those of Emanuel Swendenborg; and those of the Cambridge Platonists and the 17th century metaphysical English writers.
The American transcendentalists seemed to reject the narrow orthodox Christian concept of God. Theirs was a broader view of seeing God in his creation, and not only as the Creator. Emerson who helped form a major portion of the philosophy did not want to escape from the physical world into the spiritual, but have an union of both. He wrote, “It is better…to look upon external beauty as Michelangelo did, as ‘the frail and weary weed, in which God dresses the soul, which he had called into time.'”
Some have referred to transcendentalism as an ideal theory. They placed it over common faith with the advantage that “it presents the world in precisely that view which is most desirable to the mind…From the ideal view, the mind (Emerson writes “soul”) does not concern itself with the trivia of the Christian disputes over miracles, persons (was Jesus divine?), or ‘niceties of [higher] criticism.’ It is sufficient to look upon the visible world as “one vast picture, which God paints on the instant eternity, for the contemplation of the soul.'”
The first step to the formation of the Transcendentalist Club led first to the Hedge Club. It was in 1836 when Emerson, George Ripley, Frederic Henry Hedge with some friends were attending the bicentennial celebration of their alma mater, Harvard College, they found their own discussions of a new philosophy more interesting than the bicentennial activities. So they went to the Willard Hotel of Boston.
When their discussions proved stimulating they decided to meet regularly in private homes to further their talks and planning. These meetings usually coincided with Hedge’s visits to Boston from his pastorate in Bangor, Maine. Thus the group became known as “the Hedge Club.” The club remained informal, electing no officers and having no constitution. Its membership varied from meeting to meeting for several years.
The group or Club, whatever the name, never produced any monumental achievements although in showed its influence on many causes of the times. One might think the lack of achievements was possibly because the membership was so loosely net and most members were too independently minded. It published three periodicals of which the Dial was the most successful.
Members of the group started two communal living projects, both of which were not successful. The first was called Brook Farm, in West Roxbury a suburb of Boston, was mainly the idea of George Ripley. His plan for the community was to bring together all types of artists who could work together to jointly build more financial security that would permit them to continue their art work more easily than working independently in the ordinary world. This community never received sufficient personal and financial backing to succeed, after several years it turned to Fourierism and then collapsed. The second project was Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts which met a similar fate.
The transcendentalists are usually associated with Concord, Massachusetts, but none of the members except Thoreau lived there. The town, however, became a literary colony. Emerson moved there in 1834 partly because he inherited property there and later was followed by writers like Amos Bronson Alcott, Ellery Channing, and Sanborn who wished to be near him.
Many of the transcendentalists were active in the lyceum movement in the 19th century. This movement gave them a platform from which to espouse their views as well as supplementing their income. Emerson gave over 100 lectures around Concord and many more from Maine to California. Practically everything he wrote was given from a lectern before published. Henry David Thoreau gave lectures too but was never as popular as Emerson. Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott preferred to give their views within discussion groups.
Although they stressed self-reform the transcendentalists participated in most of the social action movements of the times such as temperance, peace, universal suffrage, antisabbatarianism, and antislavery. Some members were particularly active in the latter especially Thoreau with his Civil Disobedience (1849), Slavery in Massachusetts (1854) and A Plea for Captain John Brown (1860). All these works were classics for the movement. Members, including Thoreau, participated actively in helping the Underground Railroad.
Following Thoreau’s death and the retirement of Emerson the Transcendentalism movement died out after the Civil War. Mark Twain once referring to it “the Gilded Age,” said it died because of an increase emphasis on materialism. In the 1870s there were two attempts to revive transcendentalism but both failed.
Examples of the spirit of transcendentalism can be seen continuing into the 20th century. Authors like Walt Whitman claimed transcendentalism lid him in the writing of Leaves of Grass; more than likely, Emily Dickinson could have said the same about her poetry. Nathaniel Hawthorne, although never fully accepting the principles of transcendentalism, was profoundly affected by it. So was Charles William Elliot who traced the inspiration for his elective system in collegiate education to Emerson; as was John Dewey with his progressive education.
Others influenced by the philosophy were Mary Eddy Baker, founder of the Christian Science Church. She was especially influenced by Alcott. Early leaders of the British Labour Party, who with the help of the philosophies of Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi, helped formed the anti-Nazi resistance movement during World War II.
During the 1960s the civil rights movement in the United States led by Dr. Martin Luther King acknowledged that many of its civil disobedience policies came from Thoreau’s writing on the subject.
Sources: 1, (Walter Harding, State University of New York at Geneseo) 61, 64.