For much more information than can be contained on this brief page, see Lawrence Buell's Literary Transcendentalism and other works from the selected bibliographies on Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
transcendentalism was an important movement in philosophy and literature
that flourished during the early to middle years of the nineteenth century
(about 1836-1860). It began as a reform movement in the Unitarian
church, extending the views of William Ellery Channing on an indwelling
God and the significance of intuitive thought. It was based on "a monism
holding to the unity of the world and God, and the immanence of God in
the world" (Oxford Companion to American Literature 770). For the
transcendentalists, the soul of each individual is identical with the soul
of the world and contains what the world contains.
Transcendentalists rejected Lockean empiricism, unlike the Unitarians: they wanted to rejuvenate the mystical aspects of New England Calvinism (although none of its dogma) and to go back to Jonathan Edwards' "divine and supernatural light," imparted immediately to the soul by the spirit of God.
For an excellent overview of American transcendentalism, go to Chapter Four of Paul Reuben's PAL site at California State University-Stanislaus and Ann Woodlief's Transcendentalism Web at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Related links: Tom Foran Clark's online biography of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn.
Key statements of its doctrine include Emerson's essays, especially Nature (1836), "The American Scholar" (1837), "The Divinity School Address" (1838), "The Transcendentalist" (1842), and "Self-Reliance," and Thoreau's Walden (1854). Others involved in the Transcendental Club and its magazine The Dial included Margaret Fuller, editor of The Dial (1840-42), Amos Bronson Alcott, and William Ellery Channing.
In addition to his famous "transparent eyeball" caricature of Emerson, see also Christopher Pearse Cranch's poem "Correspondences" for a succinct statement of Transcendentalist doctrines.
|Definitions||Lawrence Buell, New England Literary Culture
"Transcendentalism, in fact, really began as a religious movement, an attempt to substitute a Romanticized version of the mystical ideal that humankind is capable of direct experience of the holy for the Unitarian rationalist view that the truths of religion are arrived at by a process of empirical study and by rational inference from historical and natural evidence" (46).William Henry Channing(1810-1844)
"Transcendentalism, as viewed by its disciples, was a pilgrimage from the idolatrous world of creeds and rituals to the temple of the Living God in the soul. It was a putting to silence of tradition and formulas, that the Sacred Oracle might be heard through intuitions of the single-eyed and pure-hearted. Amidst materialists, zealots, and skeptics, the Transcendentalist believed in perpetual inspiration, the miraculous power of will, and a birthright to universal good. He sought to hold communion face to face with the unnameable Spirit of his spirit, and gave himself up to the embrace of nature's perfect joy, as a babe seeks the breast of a mother."Charles Mayo Ellis, An Essay on Transcendentalism (1842)
"That belief we term Transcendentalism which maintains that man has ideas, that come not through the five senses or the powers of reasoning; but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world. . . ."Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)
"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 parcel of God" (996). See also Emerson's essay "The Transcendentalist."(1842)
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
More aery, last the bright consummate flow'r
Spirits odorous breathes: flowr's and thir fruit
Man's nourishment, by gradual scale sublim'd
To vital spirits aspire, to animal,
To intellectual, give both life and sense
Fancy and understanding, whence the Soul
Reason receives, and reason is her being,
Discursive, or intuitive; discourse
Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours
Differing but in degree, of kind the same.
See also the Romantic concept of the sublime, especially the ideas of Edmund Burke.
|Orestes Brownson, a philosopher and contemporary
of Emerson's, raised objections to Emerson's thought that are remarkable
because he neither defends Lockean epistemology nor seems worried (as were
conservative thinkers) about the "murderous instincts" of the lower classes.
Although he retracted much of this later because he felt sympathy for Emerson
(who was under attack for these ideas), here are some of his initial impressions:
"But we give it up. We cannot analyze one of Mr. Emerson's discourses. He hardly ever has a leading thought, to which all the parts of his discourse are subordinate, which is clearly stated, systematically drawn out, and logically enforced. He is a poet rather than a philosopher--and not always true even to the laws of poetry."
Reviewing the "Divinity School Address," Brownson said that we are told "to obey our instincts" and to scorn to imitate even Jesus. But "How shall we determine which are our higher instincts and which our lower instincts? We do not perceive that he gives us any instructions on this point. . . . We are to act out ourselves. Now, why is not the sensualist as moral as the spiritualist, providing he acts out himself?"
Brownson accuses Emerson of "transcendental selfishness":
"Are all things in the universe to be held subordinate to the individual
soul? Shall a man take himself as the center of the universe, and say all
things are for his use, and count them of value only as they contribute
something to his growth or well-being?" According to this system, "I am
everything; all else is nothing, at least nothing except what it derives
from the fact that it is something to me."