American Transcendentalism Web
Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism
Resources Search Communication Center
Default text size Big text size Bigger text size Biggest text size


Transcendence: The Yin and Yang
of Emerson and Goethe

Sheri Gietzen

[W]e are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not pinched in a corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but redeemers, and benefactors, pious aspirants to be noble clay plastic under the Almighty effort, let us advance on Chaos and the Dark. (Emerson, 1161)

Emerson insists that humankind is the redeemer; the essence of virtue and truth is within the soul, and the individual is able to press forward against Chaos and Darkness, attaining transcendence and harmony. Obedience to one's own soul is the path to salvation: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men,-that is genius," declared Emerson (1160). Each soul is the maker of his/her own ethical self, yet connected in the sense that truth discovered within the deepest part of the soul touches on truth that transcends apparent differences-truth is connected to the ultimate realities of the universe and, therefore, is the same for all men. Emerson believes in the soul's inborn knowledge of ultimate realities of the universe.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and a small group composed mainly of Unitarian ministers formed the Transcendental Club. Transcendentalism is a philosophy that emphasizes the soul's inborn knowledge of ultimate realities of the universe, and emphasizes the soul's transcendence in life as the fundamental goal of man. They believed the mind to be creative in forming its perception. Transcendentalism emerged from self-affirming individualistic rationalism; it asserted the value of the individual over the physical world, elevating the soul toward a transcendent destiny.

In Transcendentalism, each soul is seen as carrying the whole of the cosmos within it, interconnected yet independent in power and truth. Emerson declared, "That is always best which gives me to myself. The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, Obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen" (1152). He stated that no soul should accept or subordinate itself to interpretations of virtue and truth or Heaven and Earth, but a great and rich soul will drink deeply of its own empowering goodness and transcend the material world, just as Jesus did. Harold Bloom asserted that "Emerson suggests we give ourselves to ourselves; that each of us can be a cosmos rather than chaos.

In "The American Scholar," Emerson asserted, "It is one soul which animates all men" (1145). Rejected traditional dependence on the dictates of the Christian church to understand one's place in the universe. "Each philosopher, each bard, each actor, has only done for me, as by a delegate, what one day I can do for myself," celebrated Emerson (1144). Transcendentalists affirm that humanity has the capacity to find illumination and salvation independent of church dogma. The individual rises in self-trust: "In self-trust, all virtues are comprehended" (Emerson, 1143), and self-trust leads to harmony of the individual soul with God. Transcendentalism celebrates the interconnectedness of souls that happens simultaneously as each person finds his/her own role and path in life.

Autonomy ought to be our aim, though Emerson intends a healing of the self, rather than alienation from society. Humankind has the ability to face the chaos and darkness in society and the world; each soul can break through the disharmony and find meaning within itself as well as with the cosmos.

Man a Microcosm Separated from the Macrocosm of the Cosmos

Transcendental values of the self-empowering soul resonate with the search for meaning wrestled with in Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [1749-1832]. In "The American Scholar," Emerson wrote that Goethe, "The most modern of the moderns, has shown us, as none ever did, the genius of the ancients" (1146). From the Prologue of Faust, Goethe introduced the idea of individualistic society's sense of autonomy and disharmony in the universe. Archangel Raphael says, "The sun intones, in ancient tourney [ancient song],/ With brother spheres, a rival air" (84). Goethe was referring to the "harmony of the spheres," a Pythagorean teaching in which each sphere in the solar system emits a tone that harmonizes with the tones of all the other spheres. Goethe asserted, however, that the sun's song is at odds with his brother spheres' songs; Goethe claimed that the universe is not the orderly universe, but a universe of contention, of conflict, of uncertainty. In "Goethe; or, the Writer," Emerson heralded Goethe's Faust as "the work of one who found himself the master of histories, mythologies, philosophies, sciences and national literatures." Goethe (1961) observed a sublime dynamic in the cosmos that synchronized with the transcendentalist's symbolic web of meaning. The Archangels' conversation sets the stage for God and Mephisto's discussion of man (and Faust), which parallels God and Satan's discussion of the temptation and persecution of Job in the Old Testament. However, Goethe's tension in the spheres may also be a metaphor for humanity's inner struggle in the self-transformative process of self-realization. Raphael's next lines allude to the possibility that, within the "predestined journey" that "gives strength to angels," there is a path of harmony that may be discovered by humanity:

And his predestined journey,
He closes with a thunderous blare.
His sight, as none can comprehend it,
Gives strength to angels; the array
Of works, unfathomably splendid,
Is glorious as on the first day. (84)

Goethe introduced the idea that disharmony is the condition of humanity and the universe, and that the search for meaning in a self-affirming life requires personal investigation and striving in this world in order to come to harmony with the self in the immanent world as well as to come to harmony in the transcendent world. Emerson in "Goethe, or The Writer" called Goethe a "poet of a prouder laurel than any contemporary, and, under this plague of microscopes (for he seems to see out of every pore of his skin), strikes the harp with a hero's strength and grace. [] What new mythologies sail through his head! The Greeks said that Alexander went as far as Chaos; Goethe went, only the other day, as far; and one step farther he hazarded, and brought himself safe back."

In his search for meaning, Goethe (1961) looked to classical teachings. Goethe pressed into this theme of the disharmony of the universe and striving of the individual by using Pythagorean cosmology as a common foundation. Faust opens a "book full of mystery," by the philosopher Nostradamus (1503-1566), and exclaims that "Stars' orbits you will know; and bold,/ You learn what nature has to teach; Your soul is freed, and you behold/ The spirits' words, the spirits' speech" (97): He beholds the symbol of the Macrocosm. The symbol of the Macrocosm is a diagram of the organization of the universe in terms of the four elements, the arrangement of the planets, and relationship between human, nature, and heavenly spheres. Faust calls the macrocosm "holy symbols" and exclaims, "What jubilation bursts out of this sight/ Into my senses-now I feel it flowing,/ Youthful, a sacred fountain of delight, /Through every nerve, my veins are glowing" (97). Clearly, he is entranced by this symbol, which is based on Pythagorean cosmology and is foundational to transcendentalist ideology.

Pythagorean mysticism asserted an ordered cosmos (the word cosmos originally meant "order"), wherein everything exists as a harmonious whole in concordance with the symmetries and correlations intrinsic to the numbers and their geometrical representations: This was called Harmonices Mundi, or Harmony of the world (Curd, 17-23). The microcosm represents the individual and the macrocosm the universe, yet Pythagorean cosmology makes direct parallels and a unity between the two. Goethe and Emerson agree with the Pythagorean idea of a close interconnectedness between the individual and the cosmos; however, they disagree with Pythagorean assertions of a unity or harmony in the universe-a struggle or striving in this world is the path to meaning and transcendence.

In Nature, Emerson emphasized the striving of the individual soul as central along the path to transcendence and unity with the cosmos. Emerson asserted, "A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams ... Man is the dwarf of himself" (1132). The potential in humanity to struggle in his search for meaning will result in a transcendence of the immanent, yet the struggle toward harmony with oneself and the cosmos is an arduous one, a difficult striving of opposing forces. Emerson stressed that the "reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit" (1133). As with Goethe, Emerson understood the disharmony and striving within the soul and without in the cosmos. Each soul, though dwarfed and in ruins, must be accountable in the personal path of seeking integration and meaning in order to be illumined in spirit and find harmony through transcendence.

Furthermore, humanity's condition as a god in ruins, Emerson asserted, has caused him to be "the follower of the sun, and woman the follower of the moon" (1132). The place of follower displaces the cosmic power within humankind, exacerbating inner disunity. Emerson declared that "Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents. Out from him sprang the sun and moon; from man the sun; from woman, the moon. [... yet] he no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop" (1132). The creative and cosmic power within man, to Emerson, is evident, yet dormant. The self-healing capacity of the human spirit, and the capability of "restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul" (1133). The possibility of cosmic restoration lies with the human soul. Emerson put responsibility of the individual to "[b]uild, therefore your own world" (1134). He has every faith that the good in humanity will conquer all disunity, all evil.

As we have seen, Goethe's (1961) disharmony in the universe serves as a platform for Faust's struggles through the process of self-transformation. Goethe presents a universe of disharmony. Yet, even without harmony on the macrocosmic level, the individual (the microcosm) may strive and eventually achieve harmony. In the Prologue, Archangel Raphael's harmony and Archangel Michael's storms are synthesized, stressing the possibility of the fusion and unity of disharmonious spheres or souls. Goethe's arrangement of disharmony among the planets, which he calls the brother spheres, the macrocosm, is mirrored within Faust, the microcosm. Faust expresses the disharmony within him to Wagner: "You are aware of only one unrest;/ Oh, never learn to know the other!/ Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast,/ And one is striving to forsake its brother" (145). Within Faust, one soul strives for harmony and transcendence, the other for personal worldly power and gain. Faust is intimate with the crisis and struggle with disunity that Emerson emphasized.

For Emerson and Goethe, the connection between the microcosm and macrocosm, and the significance of the soul's striving is, as Geertz asserted, "not an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (5). Emerson (2003) declared:

Nor has science sufficient humanity, so long as the naturalist overlooks that wonderful congruity which subsists between man and the world; of which he is lord, not because he is the most subtle inhabitant, but because he is the head and heart, and finds something of himself in every great and small thing, in every mountain stratum, in every new law of color, fact of astronomy, or atmospheric influence which observation or analysis lay open. (1131)

The connection between the soul and the cosmos encompasses science and spirit; the head and heart are in a relationship with terra firma and the solar system. Self-realization through the soul's striving takes on a different hue than the medieval holistic system discussed earlier where individuals are defined by their role and duties in an integrated society. In the medieval system, the facets of the kaleidoscope are tightly defined. Following a structured, preset order, as in the great chain of being and church doctrines, each person knows his role and niche in this life, and looks for salvation beyond.

In the medieval framework with a preset, ascribed order to the universe, the search for meaning in a disharmonious cosmos would make no sense; on the other hand, in the transcendentalist path to self-realization, the constrictions of the dogmas of the church would prevent Emerson's (2003) enduring doctrine of "Obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me makes me a wart and a wen" (1152). An ascribed role would limit the soul's ability to attain illumination.

Similar to Emerson's claim that the search for meaning is through the striving of the soul, Goethe's Faust takes a path of self-realization within a cosmology that asserts a God who supports an individualistic journey to enlightenment. Faust is not an atheist-although he has rejected the medieval Christian concept of God, just as Emerson has. Faust cannot return to the static and narrow views of the Christian church's traditional value system, as his lover Margaret wishes: "[I]t is faith that we need/ ... Oh that I had some influence!/ You don't respect the holy sacraments" (325). Margaret, who holds traditional values, does not understand the process of self-realization working inside of Faust. Of his belief in God, Faust says to Margaret, "Who may feel,/ Who may dare reveal/ In words: I believe him not?/ The All-Embracing,/ The All-Sustaining,/ Does he not embrace and sustain/ You, me, himself?" (327) Faust has set himself upon a sort of transcendentalist path of finding his true self. He has gone beyond the "holy sacraments" of the church to engage the cosmos itself and find his true self in relation to it. In fact, for transcendentalists and Faust, nothing is static, all is in flux, all is in a state of becoming, and each must strive on his own to discover harmony and the true self.

Goethe revealed Faust's journey to self-realization as a complex path, involving the synthesizing of the disharmonic duplicity within his own soul, a synthesis that will bring him into harmony with God. Symbolically, his lover, Margaret, represents the innocent, pure, undefiled, yet unknowing side of the person: The light within the microcosm. Mephisto, on the other hand, represents the dark, passion-driven side of the person: The shadow side within the microcosm. Faust is searching for parts of his own soul, his own self-understanding and self-transcendence, in Mephisto and Margaret. Self-realization comes only when the person has wrestled with the dark and light sides within oneself. For Faust, striving toward knowledge of the self is the path to harmony and transcendence of the self. God, who for Faust pervades everything, is the elusive invisible hand that can be sensed and felt, and leads the person who is striving toward self-realization. Faust says to Margaret:

Do we not look into each other's eyes,
And all in you is surging
To your head and heart,
And weaves in timeless mystery,
Unseeable, yet seen, around you?
Then let it fill your heart entirely,
And when your rapture in this feeling is complete,
Call it bliss! Heart! God!
I do not have a name
For this. Feeling is all;
Names are but sound and smoke
Befogging heaven's blazes. (327)

Faust, Margaret, and every person or microcosm, is an intimate part of the macrocosm. All that exists is pervaded by God; and all are in a state of becoming. Goethe's God reaches beyond the traditional Western Christian definition of an omniscient God who presides at the top of the great chain of being. Of course, there were many subtle and significantly different ideas of God in Middle Ages just as are in the Christian tradition today, and "following Christ" can mean leading one down the path toward self-realization; however, Faust breaks many of the rules when he turns from following the sacramental life of the church. Faust is, in many ways, Emerson's ideal transcendentalist: He chose to become his own sage, strove down a path toward self-realization, finding ultimate union within himself, with the cosmos, and with God.

In "Self-Reliance," Emerson (2003) declared that each soul should become his or her own sage, independently striving toward self-realization. He bemoaned, "Man is apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage. ... He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time" (1168). Emerson and Goethe see the necessity of engaging the forces of good and evil outside of the isolation of the individual mind. Faust's struggle involves engaging light and dark forces. All souls have the potential to harmonize the light side and shadow side of their own microcosm in the present. Emerson realized that the journey to unity and harmony is one of change and inconsistency, of trial and error. In a universe of contention, conflict and uncertainty, the striving soul will shift in its expression: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (1164). However, for Emerson, striving is the key: "If we live truly, we shall see truly ... the soul becomes ... God is here within" (1168-69). Goethe and Emerson emphasize rejecting the traditional cultural webs of meaning and aspiring to undertake the changing, uneven journey of self-discovery and transformation. Emerson stressed, "Insist on yourself; never imitate. ... Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakspeare" [sic] (1174).


Bloom, Harold. (May, 2003). "The Sage of Concord," The Guardian. Retrieved 15 January 2005, from,12084,962070,00.html.

Curd, Patricia. Ed. A Presocratic Reader. Translated by Richard D. McKirahan, Jr. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1996.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Sixth ed., 2003. [1836] New York: W W Norton & Company, 1106-1134.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self Reliance." In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Sixth ed., 2003. [1841] New York: W W Norton & Company, 1160-1176.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American Scholar." In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Sixth ed., 2003 [1837] New York: W W Norton & Company, 1135-1147.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1850). "Goethe; or, the Writer." In Representative Men, retrieved 25 March 2007 from

Geertz, Clifford. "Description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture," The Interpretation of Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1973, 5.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Goethe's Faust. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1961 [1790].

Home:     Criticism
American Transcendentalism Web
Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism
Resources Search Communication Center