Summary and Analysis of The Transcendentalist
Following this general discussion of the characteristics and history of transcendentalism, Emerson now focuses his attention on contemporary transcendentalists. He notes the existence of intelligent and idealistic people who have withdrawn from urban society to live solitary, unproductive lives. Capable of great artistic achievement, these isolationists are afflicted with a strange inertia, or passivity. They withhold their talents from constructive — and public — use.
Emerson asks what is to blame for this situation. He compares the passive character of these individuals, who have openly shunned society, to the highly spiritual nature he has already described in the essay: Transcendentalists have difficulty relating to people because they are so spiritually refined that ordinary life cannot satisfy their wants. They may be lonely, but evidently they feel that human conversation has nothing to offer them: "They wish a just and even fellowship, or none. They cannot gossip with you, and they do not wish, as they are sincere and religious, to gratify any mere curiosity which you may entertain." Because they are so committed to perfection and believe that everything human is flawed, these refined idealists prefer solitary communion with nature, or with a book, to the inferior society of crass and common people.
Following this analysis of the idealists' antisocial character, Emerson addresses them directly. Although the world does not understand their aloofness, he challenges them to use their gifts of understanding and insight to benefit society; otherwise, their gifts will be wasted: ". . . the good and wise must learn to act, and carry salvation to the combatants and demagogues in the dusty arena below." Good people — that is, idealists — must act; they cannot expect society to learn from their example if society never sees their faith embodied in noble actions.
But idealists are not entirely to blame for their reserved natures. Social causes are not enough to inspire them to action because every time a goal, such as abolition of slavery or temperance in using alcohol, becomes a focus for reform, the cause degenerates from a lofty principle into a vulgar commodity. Great causes are cheapened by the kinds of promotion and advertising that is used to further them. Therefore, idealists shun even those movements that promote the very ideals they revere.
Emerson, attempting to understand the transcendentalists' thinking, assumes their persona, using "I" to express their ideas. Paramount is their refusal to adhere to a routine, which sounds identical to Emerson's warnings against consistency in "Self-Reliance." Society's focus is misplaced: "It is the quality of the moment, not the number of days, of events, or of actors, that imports." Switching to a collective "we," Emerson offers a short dialogue in which the world asks the idealists to suggest a better model of society than what already exists, but the idealists cannot. Unless a project is perfect, they must stand idle and refuse to do even limited good.
Lest we judge idealism too harshly, Emerson offers a more positive critique of idealists. These apparently indifferent and detached individuals are troubled by society's failures and shortcomings, but they are also sensitive to their own moral lapses. This awareness can produce extreme depression, even to the point of wanting to die in order to relieve the burden of such a finely tuned sensitivity. Idealists' superior intuitions never let them forget just how far they have fallen short of their ideals, and their righteousness prevents them from taking on tasks that they know they cannot do well. Hence, the ennui, the apparent indecisiveness, and the seeming passivity — all of which disturb the idealists as much as the society that observes them.
Another problem for the idealists is that they are continuously aesthetically aware: They are lovers of beauty. The American mind has always found it difficult to connect beauty to goodness and truth, regarding the latter as virtues but the first as unnecessary or even undesirable. This sentiment hinders the expression of the idealists' highest thoughts in outward actions, for they are derided for valuing beauty more than goodness and truth: "A reference to Beauty in action sounds, to be sure, a little hollow and ridiculous in the cars of the old church."
Idealists are perceived as requiring that everything meet their own specifications or they will not act to better humanity, an attitude offensive to those with authority, prestige, and power in society. A conflict ensues: Society requires idealists to change their attitudes to respect its wants; idealists want society to change in order to improve. However, the transcendentalists of whom Emerson speaks are not seasoned philosophers; rather, they are thinkers groping to find their own way in the world. They do not have full-fledged plans and programs for the benefit of society but may simply offer guidance in understanding new ideas.
In the essay's last two paragraphs, Emerson asserts that we have a duty to the idealists. Intellectuals are as necessary to a society as laborers, craftsmen, and farmers. These are the people who make new discoveries and offer a moral compass for society, which wants only improved technology, better communication, a higher standard of living — all material things. Emerson calls for a voice advocating improvements in the spiritual realm: "Perhaps too there might be room for the exciters and monitors; collectors of the heavenly spark with power to convey the electricity to others . . . to compare the points of our spiritual compass, and verify our bearings from superior chronometers." He maintains that transcendentalists — "these few hermits" — will be known and admired as much for what they refrain from doing as for what they accomplish. Their apparent silence and inaction will benefit society and be a model for the future.