Critical Essays Understanding Transcendentalism

Never a truly organized body of thought, and characterized by defects as well as inspirational ideals, transcendentalism became one of the most subtly influential trends in nineteenth-century America. Three main currents contributed to this uniquely American school of thought: neo-Platonism and the belief in an ideal state of existence; British romanticism, with its emphasis on individualism; and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.

From neo-Platonism — as nineteenth-century educated Americans understood it — came the belief in the primacy of intellectual thinking over material reality, an idea originated by the Greek philosopher Plato. Through a series of dramatic dialogues, Plato argues that there are ideal forms existing in an absolute reality; in the material world in which we live, all objects and phenomena are imperfect representations of these ideals. Our entire lives are spent trying to perfect ourselves and our environment in hopes of attaining an ideal existence. Agreeing with Plato, philosophers like Emerson and his fellow transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott go so far as to say that ideas are the only reality: The tangible world exists solely as a manifestation of pure ideas.

This preoccupation with pure ideas also appears in the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was first to use the term "transcendentalism." His philosophical investigations of the pure workings of the mind were extremely influential throughout Western culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially as they pertain to American transcendentalism. Kant believes that transcendental knowledge is limited because, as humans, we can understand only what we are capable of perceiving. If we cannot perceive something, it simply does not exist. Other German transcendentalists, with whom Emerson is closer in his thinking, expand Kant's reasoning. They argue that simply because we cannot perceive something does not mean that it does not exist. Emerson maintains that the soul exists, but he admits that he cannot define what this soul is, other than acknowledging when he senses it in himself or in another person.

British romanticism also influenced Emerson and transcendentalism. Romantics such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge advocate the primacy of the individual over the community and foster a belief in the authenticity of individual vision over the conventions and formalities of institutions. For romantics and transcendentalists alike, all institutions — be they religious, social, political, or economic — are suspect as being false, materialistic, and deadening to an individual's pure insight. Both movements emphasize personal insight, or intuition, as a privileged form of knowledge. Such fierce adherence to individuality, a mainstay in Emerson's writing, influenced the progressive social movement of the mid-nineteenth century. Individuality came to be recognized as a God-given right, a belief that holds as true today as it did during Emerson's life.

Another strong influence on Emerson's expression of transcendentalism is the writings of the Swedish mystic-philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Heavily influenced by Swedenborg's belief in the absolute unity of God — not the Trinity — and in our personal responsibility for our salvation, Emerson expresses strong distrust and criticism of the restrictions and shallowness of conventional society. He is not the visionary that others influenced by Swedenborg are, but he advocates an ecstatic, visionary approach to life and to knowledge. Many of his essays express admiration for Swedenborg and acknowledge the influence that Swedenborg had on his own thinking.

The major emphasis of American transcendentalism is transcendence, which involves reaching beyond what can be expressed in words or understood in logical or rational thinking to seek the genesis of our existence. By gaining a new understanding, we attain a heightened awareness of the world and our rightful place in it. Emerson refers to this all-encompassing force that he credits for the mystery of our existence by various terms: God, the Universal Being, the Over-Soul. He closely identifies nature with this force, to the extent that, finally, his philosophy is generally judged to be pantheistic rather than theistic. That is, God coexists with nature, sharing similar powers, rather than being a power beyond it.

According to transcendentalists like Emerson, a person who follows intuition and remains faithful to personal vision will become a more moral, idealistic individual. For many of Emerson's contemporaries, including Henry David Thoreau and Amos Bronson Alcott, such a course of action resulted in an idealism that formed the basis for their actions, especially actions that undertook to critique and change what was perceived as evil in society. For example, Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes to support America's involvement in the Mexican War. Transcendentalism also provided one major philosophical foundation for the abolition of slavery. However, while individuals such as Emerson combined transcendentalism with spirituality, the essentially pantheistic nature of the theory paved the way for more materialistic and exploitative expression. The doctrine of self-reliance mutated from an expression of moral integrity to a simple assertion of self-promotion and selfishness.

To a great extent, transcendentalism was a local phenomenon centered in Concord, Massachusetts, and was developed by a group of individuals from New England and New York who knew and communicated closely with each other. Their ideas were seldom successfully put into action, but at least one attempt is worthy of mention. Brook Farm, a utopian community founded on transcendentalist principles, lasted some six or seven years before it dissolved, to the financial loss of many who had invested in the venture. The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived there for a time and later wrote about the experience in The Blithedale Romance (1852), felt that its weakness was its lack of government, and that the community failed because too few of its members were willing to do the physical work required to make it viable. Although it failed materially, Emerson, with his characteristic optimism, believed it to be a noble experiment that provided invaluable education and enlightenment for the participants. He did not live there, but he visited the site and included a brief, personal account of Brook Farm in one of his writings, Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England.

Any writer or speaker who wishes to explain or promote a philosophy such as transcendentalism confronts the problem of discussing in language ideas that are, by definition, beyond language. Emerson resorts to imagery, but his writings are frequently cryptic, apparently contradictory, enigmatic, or simply confusing. Like other transcendentalists, he does not offer an organized body of thought; rather, he tends to circle a subject, offering comparisons, analogies, and hypotheses.

Some of the major concepts of transcendentalism have persisted and become foundational in American thought. Probably the most important of these is the affirmation of the right of individuals to follow truth as they see it, even when contrary to established laws or customs. This principle inspired both the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement and the twentieth-century civil rights and conscientious objector movements.

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