What is Transcendentalism?
Readers have asked this question often. Here's my
When I first learned about Transcendentalism, Ralph Fuller*
Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in high school English class, I admit: I couldn't figure out what the term "Transcendentalism" meant. I couldn't figure out what the central idea was that held all those authors and poets and philosophers together so that they deserved this
categorical name, Transcendentalists. And so, if you're at this page because you're having difficulty: you're not alone. Here's what I've learned since high school about
The Transcendentalists can be understood in one sense by their context -- by
what they were rebelling against, what they saw as the current situation and
therefore as what they were trying to be different from.
One way to look at the Transcendentalists is to see them Theodore
as a generation of well educated people who lived in the Parker*
decades before the American Civil War and the national
division that it both reflected and helped to create. These
people, mostly New Englanders, mostly around Boston,
were attempting to create a uniquely American body of
literature. It was already decades since the Americans had
won independence from England. Now, these people
believed, it was time for literary independence. And so
they deliberately went about creating literature, essays,
novels, philosophy, poetry, and other writing that were
clearly different from anything from England, France, Germany, or any other European nation.
Another way to look at the Transcendentalists is to see them Harriet
as a generation of people struggling to define spirituality Martineau*
and religion (our words, not necessarily theirs) in a way that took into account the new understandings their age made available.
The new Biblical Criticism in Germany and elsewhere had been looking at the Christian and Jewish scriptures through the eyes of literary analysis and had raised questions for some about the old assumptions of religion.
The Enlightenment had come to new rational conclusions James
about the natural world, mostly based on experimentation Martineau*
and logical thinking. The pendulum was swinging, and a
more Romantic way of thinking -- less rational, more
intuitive, more in touch with the senses -- was coming into
vogue. Those new rational conclusions had raised
important questions, but were no longer enough.
German philosopher Kant raised both questions and
insights into the religious and philosophical thinking about
reason and religion.
This new generation looked at the previous generation's rebellions of the early 19th century Unitarians and Universalists against traditional Trinitarianism and against Calvinist predestinationarianism. This new generation decided that the revolutions had not gone far enough, and had stayed too much in the rational mode. "Corpse-cold" Emerson called the previous generation of rational religion.
The spiritual hunger of the age that also gave rise to a new Thomas
evangelical Christianity gave rise, in the educated centers Wentworth
in New England and around Boston, to an intuitive, Higginson*
experiential, passionate, more-than-just-rational
perspective. God gave humankind the gift of intuition, the
gift of insight, the gift of inspiration. Why waste such a
Added to all this, the scriptures of non-Western cultures
were discovered in the West, translated, and published so
that they were more widely available. The
Harvard-educated Emerson and others began to read
Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, and examine their own
religious assumptions against these scriptures. In their perspective, a loving God would not have led so much of humanity astray; there must be truth in these scriptures, too. Truth, if it agreed with an individual's intuition of truth, must be indeed truth.
And so Transcendentalism was born. In the words of
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "We will walk on our own feet; we
will work with our own hands; we will speak our own
minds...A nation of men will for the first time exist,
because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul
which also inspires all men."
Yes, men, but women too.
Most of the Transcendentalists became involved as well in
Ralph Waldo social reform movements, especially anti-slavery and
Emerson* women's rights. (Abolitionism was the word used for the
more radical branch of anti-slavery reformism; feminism was a word that was invented deliberately in France some decades later and was not, to my knowledge, found in the time of the Transcendentalists.) Why social reform, and why these issues in particular?
The Transcendentalists, despite some remaining Euro-chauvinism in thinking that people with British and German backgrounds were more suited for freedom than others (see some of Theodore Parker's writings, for instance, for this sentiment), also believed that at the level of the human soul, all people had access to divine inspiration and sought and loved freedom and knowledge and truth.
Thus, those institutions of society which fostered vast Emily
differences in the ability to be educated, to be self-directed, Dickinson*
were institutions to be reformed. Women and
African-descended slaves were human beings who
deserved more ability to become educated, to fulfill their
human potential (in a twentieth-century phrase), to be
Men like Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth
Higginson who identified themselves as
Transcendentalists, also worked for freedom of the slaves
and for women's freedom.