What Is Transcendentalism?
Above all, the Transcendentalists believed in the importance of a direct relationship with God and with nature. Emerson wrote in his essay Nature that "The foregoing generations beheld God and Nature face to face; we — through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" Theodore Parker spoke of man's relation to God in particular in his powerful sermon "A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity" (also known as the "South Boston Sermon, which was delivered in 1841. Parker wrote,
In an age of corruption, as all ages are, Jesus stood and looked up to God. There was nothing between him and the father of all; no old world . . . no sin or the perverseness of the finite will. . . . He would have us do the same; worship with nothing between us and God; . . . and we never are Christians as he was the Christ, until we worship, as Jesus did, with nothing between us and the Father of all.
Thoreau, who was born and lived almost his entire life in Concord, went to live at Walden Pond in 1845 to experience nature directly and intensely and to test his Transcendental outlook in the concrete physical world. In the chapter of his book Walden titled "Solitude," he wrote of his connection with nature as a very intimate, two-way relationship:
The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature, — of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter, — such health, such cheer, they afford forever! . . . Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?
Thoreau's expression of his essential oneness with nature suggests the concept at the very heart of Transcendentalism, that of the Oversoul. The Oversoul formed the encompassing framework within which a direct relationship with God and with nature was so essential to the Transcendentalists. Simply described, the Oversoul was a kind of cosmic unity between man, God, and nature. Emerson wrote an essay titled "The Over-Soul," which was included in the first series of his Essays (published in 1841). In it, he described the Oversoul as:
. . . that great nature in which we rest . . . that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other. . . . We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.
The idea of the Oversoulhad roots in the ancient philosophy of Plato, whose writings the Transcendentalists read. To the Transcendentalists, the Oversoul was the divine spirit or mind that was present in each and every man and in all of nature. It was an all-pervading, omniscient, supreme mind. Each particular example of nature or of humanity was a reflection of the divine mind, and the whole of the cosmos could be extrapolated from each particular. In each manifestation of God, man could discover, in encapsulated form, all universal laws at work. The presence of the divine spirit in both nature and the human soul made a direct understanding of God and an openness to the natural world avenues to self-understanding. Self-understanding led to the perception of higher truth.
For some of the Transcendentalists, social activism was a direct consequence of this sense of cosmic unity. If man is intimately connected with and a reflection of God in the way that the Transcendentalists suggested, and if God is good and just, then man is also innately good and just. Evil exists only when man has an imperfect awareness of his essential goodness and godliness. This outlook gave dignity and importance to human activity, as manifestations of the divine, and fostered a belief in man's power to bring about personal improvement and social change in harmony with God's purposes. Out of this belief arose the Transcendentalists' involvement in a variety of reform activities and in social experiments like Brook Farm and Fruitlands, which were utopian communities established in Massachusetts.
As important as this interrelationship between the particular and the cosmic was to the Transcendentalists, the process by which the individual could understand the relationship was equally important. They felt that neither the received dogma of traditional systems of belief nor formal reasoning would give real insight into truth and morality as expressed in the multiple manifestations of the Oversoul. They looked rather to intuitive, as opposed to consciously rational, thought.
James Walker was a Unitarian minister, an editor of The Christian Examiner, a Harvard professor of religion and philosophy, and an influence on the Transcendentalists (although not really one of them). In 1834, he published in The Christian Examiner an address titled "The Philosophy of Man's Spiritual Nature in Regard to the Foundation of Faith," in which he described intuitive thought as the Transcendentalists understood it. Walker stated:
. . . On what evidence does a devout man's conviction of the existence and reality of the spiritual world depend? I answer . . . [h]e does not take the facts of his inward experience, and hold to the existence and reality of the spiritual world as a logical deduction from these facts, but as an intuitive suggestion grounded on these facts. He believes in the existence and reality of the spiritual world, just as he believes in his own existence and reality, and just as he believes in the existence and reality of the outward universe, — simply and solely because he is so constituted that with his impressions or perceptions he cannot help it.
Another clear presentation of intuition was written by Francis Bowen, a writer for The Christian Examiner and a critic of Transcendentalism, in particular a critic of the emphasis on intuition as opposed to reason. In his review of Emerson's Nature in the Examiner, Bowen characterized the concept of intuition as expressed by Emerson:
[Transcendentalism] rejects the aid of observation, and will not trust to experiment. The Baconian mode of discovery is regarded as obsolete; induction is a slow and tedious process, and the results are uncertain and imperfect. General truths are to be attained without the previous examination of particulars, and by the aid of a higher power than the understanding. . . . truths which are felt are more satisfactory and certain than those which are proved. . . . Hidden meanings, glimpses of spiritual and everlasting truth are found, where former observers sought only for natural facts. The observation of sensible phenomena can lead only to the discovery of insulated, partial, and relative laws; but the consideration of the same phenomena, in a typical point of view, may lead us to infinite and absolute truth, — to a knowledge of the reality of things. . . .
Bowen continued on to draw an unflattering analogy between the validity of the Transcendentalists' "indistinct modes of reflection . . . loose and rambling speculations, mystical forms of expression, and . . . utterance of truths . . . half perceived" and the random luck of the gambler.
In their belief that truth was innate in all of creation and that knowledge of truth was intuitive, the Transcendentalists were heavily influenced by the thoughts and writings of the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. (Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was first published in 1781, his Critique of Practical Reason in 1788.) Their use of the term transcendental came from Kant, who wrote, "I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori [that is, independent of reason]."