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.
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 transcendence 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. 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.
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.
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.
Transcendentalists have a deep gratitude and appreciation for nature, not only for aesthetic purposes, but also as a tool to observe and understand the structured inner workings of the natural world. Emerson emphasizes the Transcendental beliefs in the holistic power of the natural landscape in Nature:
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. 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 circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
The conservation of an undisturbed natural world is also extremely important to the Transcendentalists. The idealism that is a core belief of Transcendentalism results in an inherent skepticism of capitalism, westward expansion, and industrialization. As early as 1843, in Summer on the Lakes, Margaret Fuller noted that "the noble trees are gone already from this island to feed this caldron," and in 1854, in Walden, Thoreau regards the trains which are beginning to spread across America's landscape as a "winged horse or fiery dragon" that "sprinkle[s] all the restless men and floating merchandise in the country for seed."
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. Some 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.
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."
In the 19th century, the philosophies of the Enlightenment began to have a dramatic effect, the landmark works of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau influencing new generations of thinkers. In the late 18th century a movement known as Romanticism began; it validated strong emotion as an authentic not of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe. Key ideas that sparked changes in philosophy were the fast progress of science; evolution, as postulated by Vanini, Diderot, Lord Monboddo, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Goethe, and Charles Darwin; and what might now be called emergent order, such as the free market of Adam Smith within nation states. Pressures for egalitarianism, and more rapid change culminated in a period of revolution and turbulence that would see philosophy change as well.Arthur Versluis
Arthur Versluis (born 1959) is a professor and Department Chair of Religious Studies in the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University.Brook Farm
Brook Farm, also called the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education or the Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education, was a utopian experiment in communal living in the United States in the 1840s. It was founded by former Unitarian minister George Ripley and his wife Sophia Ripley at the Ellis Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts (9 miles outside of downtown Boston) in 1841 and was inspired in part by the ideals of Transcendentalism, a religious and cultural philosophy based in New England. Founded as a joint stock company, it promised its participants a portion of the profits from the farm in exchange for performing an equal share of the work. Brook Farmers believed that by sharing the workload, ample time would be available for leisure activities and intellectual pursuits.
Life on Brook Farm was based on balancing labor and leisure while working together for the benefit of the greater community. Each member could choose to do whatever work they found most appealing and all were paid equally, including women. Revenue for the community came from farming and from selling handmade products like clothing as well as through fees paid by the many visitors to Brook Farm. The main source of income was the school, which was overseen by Mrs. Ripley. A pre-school, primary school, and a college preparatory school attracted children internationally and each child was charged for his or her education. Adult education was also offered.
The community was never financially stable and had difficulty profiting from its agricultural pursuits. By 1844, the Brook Farmers adopted a societal model based on the socialist concepts of Charles Fourier and began publishing The Harbinger as an unofficial journal promoting Fourierism. Following his vision, the community members began building an ambitious structure called the Phalanstery. When the uninsured building was destroyed in a fire, the community was financially devastated and never recovered. It was fully closed by 1847. Despite the experimental commune's failure, many Brook Farmers looked back on their experience positively. Critics of the commune included Charles Lane, founder of another utopian community called Fruitlands. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a founding member of Brook Farm, though he was not a strong adherent of the community's ideals. He later fictionalized his experience in his novel The Blithedale Romance (1852).
After the community's failure, the property was operated for most of the next 130 years by a Lutheran organization as first an orphanage, and then a treatment center and school. The buildings of the Transcendentalists were destroyed by fire over the years. In 1988 the State of Massachusetts acquired 148 acres (60 ha) of the farm, which is now operated by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation as a historic site. Brook Farm was one of the first sites in Massachusetts to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and be designated a National Historic Site. In 1977, the Boston Landmarks Commission designated Brook Farm a Landmark, the city's highest recognition for historic sites.Concord, Massachusetts
Concord () is a town in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, in the United States. At the 2010 census, the town population was 17,668. The United States Census Bureau considers Concord part of Greater Boston. The town center is near where the confluence of the Sudbury and Assabet rivers forms the Concord River.
The area that became the town of Concord was originally known as Musketaquid, an Algonquian word for "grassy plain." Concord was established in 1635 by a handful of British settlers; by 1775, the population had grown to 1,400. As dissension between colonists in North America and the British crown intensified, 700 troops were sent to confiscate militia ordnance stored at Concord on April 19, 1775. The ensuing conflict, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, was the incident (the shot heard round the world) that triggered the American Revolutionary War.
A rich literary community developed in Concord during the mid-19th century, centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's circle included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. Major works written in Concord during this period include Alcott's novel Little Women, Emerson's essay Self-Reliance, and Thoreau's Walden and Civil Disobedience. In this era, the now-ubiquitous Concord grape was developed in Concord by Ephraim Wales Bull.
In the 20th century, Concord developed into an affluent Boston suburb and tourist destination, drawing visitors to the Old North Bridge, Orchard House and Walden Pond. The town retains its literary culture and is home to notable authors, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alan Lightman and Gregory Maguire. Concord is also notable for its progressive and environmentalist politics, becoming in 2012 the first community in the United States to ban single-serving PET bottles.Dark romanticism
Dark Romanticism is a literary subgenre of Romanticism, reflecting popular fascination with the irrational, the demonic and the grotesque. Often conflated with Gothicism, it has shadowed the euphoric Romantic movement ever since its 18th-century beginnings. Edgar Allan Poe is often celebrated as one of the supreme exponents of the tradition.Fruitlands (transcendental center)
Fruitlands was a Utopian agrarian commune established in Harvard, Massachusetts, by Amos Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane in the 1840s, based on Transcendentalist principles. An account of its less-than-successful activities can be found in Transcendental Wild Oats by Alcott's daughter Louisa May Alcott.Lane purchased what was known as the Wyman farm and its 90 acres (36 ha), which also included a dilapidated house and barn. Residents of Fruitlands ate no animal substances, drank only water, bathed in unheated water and "no artificial light would prolong dark hours or cost them the brightness of morning." Additionally, property was held communally, and no animal labor was used.
The community was short-lived and lasted only seven months. It was dependent on farming, which turned out to be too difficult. The original farmhouse, along with other historic buildings from the area, is now a part of Fruitlands Museum.Men and Women (poetry collection)
Men and Women is a collection of fifty-one poems in two volumes by Robert Browning, first published in 1855. While now generally considered to contain some of the best of Browning's poetry, at the time it was not received well and sold poorly.Nature (essay)
"Nature" is an essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and published by James Munroe and Company in 1836. In the essay Emerson put forth the foundation of transcendentalism, a belief system that espouses a non-traditional appreciation of nature. Transcendentalism suggests that the divine, or God, suffuses nature, and suggests that reality can be understood by studying nature. Emerson's visit to the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris inspired a set of lectures he later delivered in Boston which were then published.
Within the essay, Emerson divides nature into four usages: Commodity, Beauty, Language and Discipline. These distinctions define the ways by which humans use nature for their basic needs, their desire for delight, their communication with one another and their understanding of the world. Emerson followed the success of "Nature" with a speech, "The American Scholar", which together with his previous lectures laid the foundation for transcendentalism and his literary career.Never Bet the Devil Your Head
"Never Bet the Devil Your Head", often subtitled "A Tale with a Moral", is a short story by American author Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1841. The satirical tale pokes fun at the notion that all literature should have a moral and spoofs transcendentalism.Piano Sonata No. 2 (Ives)
The Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840–60 (commonly known as the Concord Sonata) is a piano sonata by Charles Ives. It is one of the composer's best-known and most highly regarded pieces. A typical performance of the piece lasts around 45 minutes.Politics (essay)
"Politics" is an essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is part of his Essays: Second Series, published in 1844. A premier philosopher, poet and leader of American transcendentalism, he used this essay to belie his feelings on government, specifically American government. His impact on New England thought and his views on pragmatism influenced the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Orestes Brownson, and Frederich Nietzsche, among others.Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and he disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.
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 work, he gave a speech entitled "The American Scholar" in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. considered to be America's "intellectual Declaration of Independence."Emerson wrote most of his important essays as lectures first and then revised them for print. His first two collections of essays, Essays: First Series (1841) and Essays: Second Series (1844), represent the core of his thinking. They include the well-known essays "Self-Reliance", "The Over-Soul", "Circles", "The Poet", and "Experience." Together with "Nature", these essays made the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s Emerson's most fertile period. Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets, but developing certain ideas such as individuality, freedom, the ability for mankind to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. Emerson's "nature" was more philosophical than naturalistic: "Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul." Emerson is one of several figures who "took a more pantheist or pandeist approach by rejecting views of God as separate from the world."He remains among the linchpins of the American romantic movement, and his work has greatly influenced the thinkers, writers and poets that followed him. "In all my lectures," he wrote, "I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man." Emerson is also well known as a mentor and friend of Henry David Thoreau, a fellow transcendentalist.Rhododendron canadense
Rhododendron canadense, the rhodora, is a deciduous flowering shrub that is native to northeastern North America.Romantic poetry
Romantic poetry is the poetry of the Romantic era, an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century. It involved a reaction against prevailing Enlightenment ideas of the 18th century, and lasted from 1800 to 1850, approximately.The American Scholar
For the publication of Phi Beta Kappa, see The American Scholar (magazine).
"The American Scholar" was a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson on August 31, 1837, to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College at the First Parish in Cambridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was invited to speak in recognition of his groundbreaking work Nature, published a year earlier, in which he established a new way for America's fledgling society to regard the world. Sixty years after declaring independence, American culture was still heavily influenced by Europe, and Emerson, for possibly the first time in the country's history, provided a visionary philosophical framework for escaping "from under its iron lids" and building a new, distinctly American cultural identity.The Dial
The Dial was an American magazine published intermittently from 1840 to 1929. In its first form, from 1840 to 1844, it served as the chief publication of the Transcendentalists. From the 1880s to 1919 it was revived as a political review and literary criticism magazine. From 1920 to 1929 it was an influential outlet for modernist literature in English.Transcendental Club
The Transcendental Club was a group of New England intellectuals of the early-to-mid-19th century which gave rise to Transcendentalism.Transcendental humanism
Transcendental humanism in philosophy considers what is proper treatment of humans outside of nature and decides they have inherent rights, simply from being human. It is also positive that man is capable of transcending the material self and can also free himself from surrounding influences. An example of this is when he thinks about himself and his character traits as if two different people. Kant by the term meant humans are both a part of 'creation' and able to transcend reflexive obedience to the laws of nature.William Ellery Channing
William Ellery Channing (April 7, 1780 – October 2, 1842) was the foremost Unitarian preacher in the United States in the early nineteenth century and, along with Andrews Norton (1786–1853), one of Unitarianism's leading theologians. Channing was known for his articulate and impassioned sermons and public speeches, and as a prominent thinker in the liberal theology of the day. His religion and thought were among the chief influences on the New England Transcendentalists although he never countenanced their views, which he saw as extreme. He espoused, especially in his "Baltimore Sermon" of May 5, 1819, given at the ordination of the theologian and educator Jared Sparks (1789–1866) as the first minister of the newly organized First Independent Church of Baltimore, the principles and tenets of the developing philosophy and theology of Unitarianism, leading to the organization in 1825 of the first Unitarian denomination in America (American Unitarian Association) and the later developments and mergers between Unitarians and Universalists, resulting finally in the Unitarian Universalist Association of America in 1961.
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