Emerson's Essays By Ralph Waldo Emerson Summary and Analysis of The Transcendentalist Paragraphs 1-5 - Materialism versus Idealism

What people refer to as "transcendentalism" is really the long-known philosophy called idealism. Throughout history, people have been either materialists or idealists, a distinction that Emerson outlines with a list of contrasts between materialistic and idealistic ways of thinking. Materialists demand facts and evidence; idealists live a more spiritual life, attuned to imagination and intuition. Materialists insist on the "animal wants of man"; idealists rely on "individual culture." Although materialists can evolve into idealists, the reverse never happens: Once idealists recognize the possibilities of a spiritual life, their continual seeking of this transcendent state never allows them the complacency of a purely material existence.

Idealists regard the world of the senses as less important than how the mind processes those senses. Because each person looks at the world differently, there is no single view that we can call true. Our existence, idealists believe, is subjective, although people are always striving to recognize what is ideal. Materialists, whom Emerson represents in the figures of a banker and a stockbroker, depend on mathematics because it is more factual and reliable than the imagination. The major deficiency of the materialists' view is their failure to account for faith, which is not physically or intellectually understandable.

Materialists and idealists relate to objects and people differently. Materialists judge objects by appearance, size, and number: "larger" or "more" means "better." Idealists form judgments according to personal or intrinsic values, what Emerson terms "rank." They measure everything, including people, against standards they individually hold, not against standards that society deems acceptable. Rather than attempting to correct evil in the external world, idealists argue that we should focus on correcting any immoral flaws in our own individual moral characters.

Like idealists, Emerson believes that a person's ethics flow naturally from an inner disposition. His list of ethical characteristics is reminiscent of the code of conduct he presents in "Self-Reliance": "It is simpler to be self-dependent. The height, the deity of man is, to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force. Society is good when it does not violate me; but best when it is likest to solitude." Note that each person is a center out of which flow perceptions of the world, an image that recurs in many of Emerson's essays.

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