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Henry David Thoreau

Critical Essays The Transcendentalist Movement

Thoreau once declared that he "was born in the nick of time." This statement may puzzle or startle the reader when he first encounters it, but it should be noted as one of the most significant sentences Thoreau ever wrote. To a great degree, the character of Thoreau's life and the very production of Walden were results of his birth date. In 1817, the transcendentalist movement, for which Thoreau was destined to be one of the major spokesmen, was born. It would become, by the late 1830s, the intellectual force that charged Thoreau's imagination and channeled his energies into a vocation of writing and lecturing about the possibilities of an ideal existence for man. While Thoreau was not very interested in the immediate concerns that initiated the transcendentalist movement, men like Orestes Brownson, Bronson Alcott, and Emerson, who had been in the movement since the 1820s, strongly attracted the young Harvard graduate of 1837 and virtually forged the shape of his mature life.

One would not know it from Thoreau's writings, but the transcendentalist movement was the result of a heated religious controversy within the Unitarian church. It began in the 1820s with a revolt of the younger clergymen in and around Boston. They were protesting what Emerson termed "the corpse-cold Unitarianism of Harvard College and Brattle Street." They saw in Unitarianism a form of religion that had lost the ability to fulfill the spiritual and emotional needs of worshippers because of its hyper-rational approach to Christianity. To these young clergymen, Unitarianism had removed the essentials of genuine religious experience — intuition, feeling, and mystery — and had replaced them with a rationalistic, common-sense, "rule-book" approach to the religious life. The Calvinists, with their rigorous beliefs, had charged that it was not a religion at all, but merely a Sunday morning social gathering for businessmen who did not wish to be troubled about the ethics of their everyday dealings. And although the optimistically inclined transcendentalists had little in common with the Calvinists, they agreed with this assessment of Unitarian complacency in spiritual matters. In one sense, the transcendentalists were like the Calvinists: They lamented the loss of the deeply felt experience of God and the rigorous morality that had characterized faith in New England before the rise of Unitarianism. Orestes Brownson spoke for quite a few young clergymen when he termed Unitarianism "the jumping-off place from the church to absolute infidelity."

The root of the problem was the eighteenth-century philosophical view of man that had molded the character of the Unitarian church. It was the "common sense," or "sensational," philosophy popularized by John Locke. One of its major tenets was that the mind at birth is like a blank tablet and that all knowledge results from filling this tablet with ideas and impressions as they are received through the five senses. Hence, to change the metaphor, the mind was seen as a sort of mechanical organizer limited to the function of receiving information through sensory channels and classifying it into proper categories. (For those to whom this concept is new, it might help to visualize the Lockean mind in two other ways: as a sort of file cabinet in which ideas are placed and stored for future use; or, as a camera within which impressions from the external world are received and preserved.) With such an image of man's mind as a passive receptor of impressions and limited to what knowledge comes through sensory experience, the Unitarian church formulated a common-sense religion whereby being religious was simply a matter of learning (receiving) God's laws through reading the scriptures (sensory experience), listening to the sermons (sensory experience), and seeing God's handiwork in nature (sensory experience). It was thought that since man's knowledge is limited by his senses, he can never directly experience or know the supersensory (the supernatural) God; as a result, man's only possible religious activity is to learn and believe what his senses reveal to him about God, and his only duty is to conform to what scripture and the church teach as God's will. Hence, one can see the dry, rule-book nature of Unitarianism: God was "out there," removed from the sensory experience of man; the miraculous aspect of Christianity was played down since miracles cannot be verified by common sense; and the emphasis on man being a rational creature precluded concern for the irrational nature of an emotional or intuitive experience of God. To the transcendentalists, the vitals had been removed from Christianity, and they revolted.

To know God at second hand, through the church and scripture, was not enough; and Emerson, who eventually left the ministry, made this clear when he addressed the Harvard graduating class of 1838. He declared to an audience made up of many clergymen and students for the Unitarian ministry that they should not let any institutional church, dogma, creed, or even Christ himself, stand in the way of their direct communication with God. This was a radical declaration, but a logical one for Emerson who had in the previous years formulated a belief in man's ability to attain supersensory knowledge and to experience the supernatural.

For the student of Thoreau's Walden, the key point behind Emerson's "Divinity School Address" is a view of man that denies the Lockean image of the mind. Emerson and the other transcendentalists asserted that man is not limited to simply learning about God; rather than being only a receiver of sense impressions, man's mind is also a faculty that can create, independent of the senses, a consciousness of God. Contrary to Locke's "blank tablet," the mind is a potentially powerful instrument capable of imagination and intuition, and capable of establishing personal communion with the divine.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, German transcendentalist philosophers such as Kant, Fichte, and Schelling had originally proposed this view of the "creative intellect." And the English romantic poet Coleridge had popularized it in his country before Emerson and his fellow transcendentalists made it the core idea of their intellectual revolution in New England. It had arrived in America "in the nick of time," when an intellectually and spiritually hungry Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837 looking for a way of life, a cause, a philosophy, anything worth devoting his life to. There, waiting for him, were the New England transcendentalists with their vitally new and exciting vision of man's capabilities. Since this vision is the core of Walden, a further word should be said about these extraordinary capabilities that Emerson claimed for man.

Years before the "Divinity School Address" of 1838, Emerson had decided that man creates a consciousness of God — "God" being the spiritual force that he also termed the "oversoul," or the "ideal." If, Emerson reasoned, man creates consciousness of the divine, then, in effect, he creates the divine. If he intellectually creates the divine, then he possesses a divine power and must thus be divine himself. Accordingly, in Nature (1836), Emerson described the individual who does not realize this god-like power of consciousness within himself as "a god in ruins." (Thoreau used a phrase very similar to Emerson's in the "Winter Animals" chapter of Walden; there, the men who are unconscious of the divinity in them are termed "defaced and leaning monuments" of God.) He believed that each man, through the potential power of his intellect, has the ability to become god-like, to realize an ideal mode of existence, to raise himself above (that is, transcend) his presently imperfect, unsatisfactory situation in life. In short, Emerson proposed to his readers the possibility of total, ecstatic self-fulfillment; this was what fired Thoreau's imagination. Years later it was what he offered to his readers in Walden: "I do not mean to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures . . . but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complain of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them." With the same optimism and faith in man's capabilities that Emerson had, Thoreau told his audience, "I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor."

In Walden, Thoreau offers an example of one possible approach to realizing one's divinity, to fulfilling one's potential for ideal existence in the real world. Like Emerson, he advises his readers to exercise their minds and create an idea of themselves as they might ideally be, and then find the means of making that idea, or dream, come true. Thoreau made this explicit when, in the chapter "Economy," he wrote:

When one man has reduced a fact of the imagination [the idea of one's ideal self as created by the mind] to be a fact of his understanding [a fact of everyday, concrete reality], I foresee that all men will at length establish their lives on that basis.

In the "Conclusion" chapter of Walden, Thoreau again makes this point and reassures his readers that, based upon his experience at Walden Pond, he believes that an ideal mode of life is within everyone's grasp:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. . . . If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Walden proposes that men, to use a commonplace phrase, can and should "make the best of two worlds" — the supernatural world of the spirit and the natural world of everyday existence. Writers of an earlier century might have used the expression, "bringing God into the marketplace," to approximate what Thoreau was suggesting. In the terminology of his own intellectual milieu, Thoreau advises his readers to recognize the Ideal, and then design their lives accordingly so that the Ideal becomes the Real, so "the best of two worlds" may become "one world," wherein spiritual existence is the same as everyday existence.

Walden is the artistic depiction of the quest to realize such a state of life. Unlike Emerson, who usually wrote in theory about an experience of the ideal, Thoreau provided his contemporaries — and us — with a concrete way to attain successfully such a quest for a higher mode of life. In Walden, we vividly see Thoreau erect the "foundations" under his "castles in the air"; we see him create a way of life that enables him to make his dream of self-fulfillment come true.

Thus, as he attempts to "awaken" the spirit of dull John Field in Walden, Thoreau offers to us, his readers, an example of how we might "wake up" and transcend our own unsatisfactory lives. Fittingly for a transcendentalist, Thoreau offers us in Walden nothing less than the possibility of realizing our own perfection, our own divinity.