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Transcendentalism is a religious and philosophical movement that was developed during the late 1820s and 1830s in the Eastern region of the United States as a protest against the general state of spirituality and, in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School. Among the transcendentalists' core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both people and nature.
Transcendentalists believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately 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 could be formed.
Transcendentalism first arose among New England congregationalists, who differed from orthodox Calvinism on two issues. They rejected predestination, and they emphasized the unity instead of the trinity of God. Following the skepticism of David Hume, the transcendentalists took the stance that empirical proofs of religion were not possible.
Transcendentalism developed as a reaction against 18th century rationalism, John Locke's philosophy of Sensualism, and the predestinationism of New England Calvinism. It is fundamentally composed of a variety of diverse sources, including Hindu texts like the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, various religions, and German idealism.
The publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1836 essay Nature is usually considered the moment at which transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson wrote in his 1837 speech "The American Scholar": "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." Emerson closed the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from the brand new idealist philosophy:
So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. ...Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.
In the same year, transcendentalism became a coherent movement 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 published frequently in their journal The Dial, along with other venues.
By the late 1840s, Emerson believed 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 transgression 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.
Transcendentalists were strong believers in the power of the individual and divine messages. Their beliefs are closely linked with those of the Romantics.
The transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles: principles not based on, or falsifiable by, physical experience, but deriving from the inner spiritual or mental essence of the human.
It was rooted in 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. The 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.
In contrast, they were intimately familiar with the English Romantics, and the transcendental movement may be partially described as a slightly later American outgrowth of Romanticism. Another major influence was the mystical spiritualism of Emanuel Swedenborg.
Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.
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.
The transcendentalists varied in their interpretations of the practical aims of will. Some among the group linked it with utopian social change; Brownson connected it with early socialism, while others considered it an exclusively individualist and idealist project. Emerson believed the latter. In his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist", Emerson 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.
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Transcendentalism was in many aspects the first notable American intellectual movement. It certainly was the first to inspire succeeding generations of American intellectuals, as well as a number of literary monuments.
The movement directly 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.
In the 19th century, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who had been a Unitarian minister) and other transcendentalists, Unitarianism began its long journey from liberal Protestantism to its present more pluralist form.
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.
The major figures in the movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Margaret Fuller and Amos Bronson Alcott. Other prominent transcendentalists included Louisa May Alcott, Charles Timothy Brooks, Orestes Brownson, William Ellery Channing, William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Christopher Pearse Cranch, Walt Whitman, John Sullivan Dwight, Convers Francis, William Henry Furness, Frederic Henry Hedge, Sylvester Judd, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, George Ripley, Thomas Treadwell Stone, Emily Dickinson, and Jones Very.
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", 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", 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."
The term "transcendentalism" sometimes serves as shorthand for transcendental idealism, which is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and later Kantian and German Idealist philosophers. Immanuel Kant had called "all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects."
Another alternative meaning for "transcendentalism" is the classical philosophy that God transcends the manifest world. As John Scotus Erigena put it to Frankish king Charles the Bald in the year 840 AD.
|Wikisource has the text of a 1920 Encyclopedia Americana article about Transcendentalism.|