Summary and Analysis of The Transcendentalist Paragraphs 6-14


In this second section, Emerson relates idealism to transcendentalism. The transcendentalist, he says, is wholly self-absorbed and experiences a mystical understanding — uncontaminated by rules or dogma — of the universe. Emerson cites a passage from Shakespeare's Othello, in which the dying Desdemona lies about Othello's murdering her; the lie, says Desdemona's servant, Emilia, makes her more virtuous. He quotes from the transcendental philosopher Friedrich Jacobi's discussion of this Shakespearean passage. Jacobi believes that by lying, which is generally seen as an ethical flaw, Desdemona breaks a moral law but comes closer to an ideal understanding of truth. By transcending society's dictates about what moral behavior should be, she achieves a greater good, which Emerson equates with other philosophies that mirror the doctrines of transcendentalism. He singles out Buddhism and the belief that every good deed will be rewarded.

One possible reason Emerson quotes Jacobi and shows the parallels between his and other cultures' similar philosophies is to deflect criticism of transcendentalism. He admits that there is no such thing as a pure transcendentalist: It is impossible to live a totally spiritual life. His problem in "The Transcendentalist" is not in defining what a transcendentalist is; his problem lies in convincing the public that transcendence is a desirable — and attainable — quality: "We have had many harbingers and forerunners; but of a purely spiritual life, history has afforded no example." Nevertheless, transcendentalists come closest to this utopian spirituality. Examples are found throughout history: In classical times, they were called Stoics; in the late Middle Ages, Protestants and Ascetics; later, believers in pure spirituality were Puritans and the Quakers; and in Emerson's America, they are the idealists.

Emerson reminds us that the term "transcendentalism" was first used by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Contrary to the English philosopher John Locke, who maintained that all knowledge originates through our sensual impressions of the external world, Kant argued that the mind itself has independent intuitions, which he termed "transcendental."