What Is Transcendentalism? Forms of Expressing Transcendental Philosophy


The Transcendentalists expressed their idealistic philosophy in a variety of ways. They delivered lectures and sermons, and wrote essays, articles, and books. Emerson, Alcott, Ripley, Parker, Brownson, Fuller, Peabody, Channing, Thoreau, Clarke, and others participated in meetings of the Transcendental Club (formed in 1836), which served as a discussion group for crystallizing their views on aspects of religion and philosophy. For four years (1840–1844), they had in the quarterly periodical The Dial a vehicle designed specifically for the dissemination of their thoughts. But they also embraced more active, as opposed to strictly verbal and textual, modes of expression.

Teaching and educational reform were major activities to which the Transcendentalists devoted their energies. Because the intuitive nature of knowledge formed such a basic part of their outlook, education was naturally a prime area in which to test their philosophy. Bronson Alcott, a progressive teacher, relied extensively on the power of intuition in the classroom. He ran a school at the Masonic Temple in Boston — the Temple School — from 1834 to 1838. He employed the Socratic dialogue format, or the so-called "conversational" method, in which he asked questions on a designated topic and gave direction to the course of the ensuing discussion. Learning was an interactive process, intended to uncover innate truth and morality rather than to instill these values from without. Alcott served as Superintendent of Schools in Concord from 1859 to 1865. In 1879, he established the Concord School of Philosophy, an early experiment in adult and continuing education.

Elizabeth Peabody gave much of her life to teaching and to improving educational methods. She taught school in a number of places, both on her own and with various members of her family, and she served as Alcott's assistant at the Temple School. More importantly, in terms of her lasting impact on education, she went on to establish kindergarten in the United States, beginning with her founding of the first American kindergarten in Boston in 1860. She also conducted conversational series (discussion groups) similar to those offered by Margaret Fuller.

Margaret Fuller was both a feminist and, in some of her efforts, an educator of women. A learned woman, she organized series of "conversations," for women. In the early 1840s, she held conversational classes at Elizabeth Peabody's West Street home and bookstore. Her major work Woman in the Nineteenth Century grew out of these classes. Like Bronson Alcott, she intended her conversations to stimulate the intuitive process more than to impart factual knowledge.

In addition to education, the Transcendentalists expressed their optimism in man's perfectibility in the antislavery movement. Most Transcendentalists were committed to abolition. Thoreau and (more hesitantly) Emerson were galvanizing speakers and writers on behalf of the movement. Theodore Parker spoke out against slavery from the pulpit and wrote on the subject. Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody were all involved in one way or another. Thoreau formed part of the Underground Railroad in Concord.

Other reform concerns that engaged the Transcendentalists included women's suffrage, Native American education and rights, and world peace. Some of these movements continued on into the late nineteenth century, and the enduring Elizabeth Peabody was involved with them until she died, in 1894.

The establishment of experimental living communities was an important expression of Transcendentalism. Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane set up Fruitlands at Harvard, Massachusetts. It lasted from June 1843 to January 1844. The Fruitlands regimen included a vegetarian diet and cold baths in the morning. Bronson Alcott's daughter, author Louisa May Alcott, who endured considerable privation with her family at Fruitlands, satirized the experiment in a piece titled "Transcendental Wild Oats."

Brook Farm at West Roxbury was larger and longer-lived than Fruitlands. It was established by George and Sophia Ripley in 1841 to promote a balance between intellectual exertion and manual labor. It continued until 1847, for part of its existence in accordance with the principles of Charles Fourier. Life at Brook Farm included entertainment and social life as well as back-breaking labor. Side-by-side with farming and other activities related to the necessities, there were dramatic productions, parties, singing, dancing, picnics, hikes, sledding, skating, reading and literature groups, and lectures.

Finally, although Thoreau's life at Walden Pond between 1845 and 1847 constituted a community of only one, his stay there was just as much an experiment in living and an attempt at applied idealism as were Brook Farm and Fruitlands. His Walden, or, Life in the Woods, based on his experience at the pond, was published in 1854. In the chapter "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," Thoreau wrote:

Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star. . . . In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment. . . . And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us.

By living intimately with nature at Walden, Thoreau attained to the higher truths that so concerned all of the Transcendentalists.