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

Legacy of Transcendentalism: Religion and Philosophy

Heaven on Earth: The Legacy of 19th Century Transcendentalism as an Ecumenical Philosophy of Nature

Meg Brulatour, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1999

Introduction  19th Century Transcendentalism Native American Tradition Judaism
Overview Christianity Buddhism Bibliography

The 19th Century Evolution of Transcendentalism

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) is today the most readily recognized propagator and champion of 19th century Transcendentalist thought. Emerson gave German philosopher Immanuel Kant the credit for making "Transcendentalism" a familiar term. Contrary to Locke’s theory, that before any concept could be intellectualized it must first be experienced by the senses, Kant said there were experiences that could be acquired through "intuitions of the mind;" he referred to the "native spontaneity of the human mind." In Nature, Emerson explains how every idea has its source in natural phenomena, and that the attentive person can "see" those ideas in nature. Intuition allowed the transcendentalist to disregard external authority and to rely, instead, on direct experience.

In his essay "The Transcendentalist," Emerson explains that transcendentalism is "Idealism as it appears in 1842." He links it with "the very oldest thoughts" such as Buddhism. Transcendentalism in the 19th Century was more than a trend in American literature. It was a philosophical movement, but it owed its development as much to democracy as to European philosophers. Transcendentalism centered on the divinity of each individual, but this divinity could be discovered only if the person had the independence of mind to do so. American thought lent itself to this concept of independence. If one can judge by the voter participation in presidential elections (in Emerson’s time, and through the turn of the century, at least 70% of those registered to vote did so), Americans certainly thought their individual voices were of value.

Gertrude Reif Hughes calls Emerson a "vitalist." Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), best known for Walden and "Civil Disobedience," Emerson's friend and a fellow Transcendentalist, might better appreciate this term; it has a robust ring more suitable to Thoreau's pragmatism than Emerson's ethereal idealism. Hughes quotes The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thoughton vitalism: "a miscellany of beliefs united by the contention that living processes are not to be explained in terms of the material composition and physico-chemical performances of living bodies" (162). Such a definition recalls Kant's rejection of Locke's theory, that the infant human mind presented to the world a tabula rasa, and all knowledge is filtered through sensation. If, as Kant says, there are some things humans know intuitively, and direct experience is not required to "write" upon the "blank slate" because it is not blank after all, then it must be that some unexplained "living process" has already placed the information.

It seems that to be a transcendentalist, one must first be a vitalist, although critics of transcendentalism would say "miscellany" is a too mild term for its rather fluid tenets. (Charles Dickens said, "I was given to understand that whatever was unintelligible would certainly be Transcendental"). But take "vitalism" one step further: animation is a vital principle in its own right, yes – but if the "material composition," etc., are the symbols of that lively spirit –  then Emerson’s vision of Transcendentalism is clarified. The universe is one great entity, "composed of Nature and the Soul;" Nature is the symbol of the spirit (Nature).

Transcendentalism earned a reputation as a "collection of miscellany" because such variety of thought is built into the definition. Emerson and Thoreau both admonish their audiences to go their own way rather than emulate the authors. Emerson declared he wanted no followers; it would disappoint him if his ideas created hangers-on rather than "independence;" he would then doubt his own theories and fear he was guilty of some "impurity of insight." Discipleship automatically thwarts prime tenets of Transcendentalism: if individualism stems from listening to one’s "inner voice," and one’s life is guided by intuition, then conformation, whether to societal convention or individual creed, is not necessary or desirable.

Emerson, and others, believed in what he called the Oversoul (Walt Whitman called it the "float"). The divine "spark" within, and connecting, all facets of nature, including humankind, makes up the Oversoul. One's own "spark," and connection, can be discovered not through logical reasoning but only through intuition: the creative insight and interpretation of one's own inner voice. The 19th century Transcendentalists called for an independence from organized religion; they saw no need for any intercession in the relationship between God and the individual man. Divinity is self-contained, internalized in all beings. Transcendentalism gives credence to the unlimited potential of human ability to connect with both the natural and spiritual world. The chief aim is to become fully aware not only of what our senses record, but also to allow our inner voice—our intuition—to wisely and correctly interpret the sensory input.

Transcendentalists were idealistic and optimistic because they believed they could find answers to whatever they were seeking. As Emerson says, when they learn to translate, through intuition, the external symbols of nature, they can read the underlying spiritual facts: 

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man's condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts is as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. 

Transcendentalism declared meaning in everything, and all meaning was good, part of and connected by divine plan. Emerson refuted evil, insisting it was not an entity in itself, but simply the absence of good. If good is introduced, evil dissipates. One ray of light penetrates darkness. According to the Transcendentalists, everyone has the power to "transcend" the apparent confusion and chaos of the world and see order in nature's design. All on earth have the divine "spark" within and thus all are part of the whole. This philosophy led to an optimistic emphasis on individualism and the value of the individual over society. To "transcend" society one must first be able to look past and beyond it. One must follow intuition and not conform to contrary social decree. Society encourages, even demands conformity and dependence. In the aptly titled "Self-Reliance," Emerson urges his reader to "trust thyself."

Anti-transcendentalists rejected such an outlook on humanity. They declared such optimism naïve and unrealistic. The anti-transcendentalists reflected a more pessimistic attitude, focusing on man's uncertainty and limited potential in the universe: Nature is vast and incomprehensible, a reflection of the struggle between good and evil. Humans are innately depraved and must struggle toward goodness. In fact, goodness is actually attainable only for a few, but evil is a huge morass into which any can slip. Sin is an active force, not merely the absence of good; they do believe, on some level, that the devil exists. Finally, because nature is the creation and possession of God, humans cannot interpret or understand any symbolism it may contain. Intercession between the common man and higher authority is required in heaven and on earth.

Anti-transcendentalists feared that people who desired complete individualism would give in to the worst aspects of man's nature. Without external constraint, such as societal mores, people are free to wreak havoc, motivated by immediate need and the desire for sensory gratification. However, such free-wheeling chaos can arise only if Transcendentalism ignores the ultimate point of the philosophy: the call to rise above--transcend-- "animalistic" impulses in the journey from the arena of rational but flawed human thought to the perfection of the spiritual realm.

Home:     Roots and Legacies     Heaven on Earth>