What Is Transcendentalism? Reasons for the Rise of the Movement


Transcendentalism flourished at the height of literary and aesthetic Romanticism in Europe and America. Romanticism was marked by a reaction against classical formalism and convention and by an emphasis on emotion, spirituality, subjectivity, and inspiration. Transcendentalism, inspired by English and European Romantic authors, was a form of American Romanticism. Transcendentalism arose when it did for several reasons.

First, it was a humanistic philosophy — it put the individual right at the center of the universe and promoted respect for human capabilities. The movement was in part a reaction against increasing industrialization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and against the dehumanization and materialism that frequently accompanied it. In 1814, progressive mill owner Francis Cabot Lowell introduced the power loom into the American textile industry at his Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts. The New England Transcendentalists consequently grew to maturity at a time when the nature of work and the role of labor were undergoing tremendous change before their eyes, and very close to home.

Secondly, in the early nineteenth century, in the period preceding the rise of Transcendentalism, dissatisfaction with the spiritual inadequacy of established religion was on the rise. Some early Unitarian ministers — especially William Ellery Channing (who was the uncle of the Concord poet of the same name) — had turned away from harsh, unforgiving Congregational Calvinism and preached a more humanistic, emotionally expressive, and socially conscious form of religion. Channing and a few others among the early Unitarians had a formative influence on the Transcendentalists.

However, even the liberal Unitarians remained under the sway of the seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke, who had explained knowledge as perceivable only by direct observation through the physical senses. Kant's later presentation of knowledge as intuitive was, of course, in direct opposition to Locke. In this sense, Transcendentalism was a reaction against the extreme rationalism of the Enlightenment.

The dissatisfaction with established religion that affected the Transcendentalists is strongly and clearly expressed in Emerson's 1838 "Divinity School Address," in which Emerson asked,

In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God? Where now sounds the persuasion, that by its very melody imparadises my heart, and so affirms its own origin in heaven? . . . But now the priest's Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is unlovely; we are glad when it is done; we can make, we do make, even sitting in our pews, a far better, holier, sweeter, for ourselves.

These were critical words, and they drew strong negative response, particularly from Andrews Norton, a Biblical scholar and professor at the Harvard Divinity School, who issued his Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity in 1839 in response to the ideas Emerson put forth in his address.

Like the "Divinity School Address," Theodore Parker's "A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity" expressed rejection of established religion and religious doctrine:

The stream of Christianity, as men receive it, has caught a stain from every soil it has filtered through, so that now it is not the pure water from the well of life which is offered to our lips, but streams troubled and polluted by man with mire and dirt. If Paul and Jesus could read our books of theological doctrines, would they accept as their teaching what men have vented in their name? Never, till the letters of Paul had faded out of his memory; never, till the words of Jesus had been torn out from the book of life. It is their notions about Christianity men have taught as the only living word of God. They have piled their own rubbish against the temple of Truth where Piety comes up to worship; what wonder the pile seems unshapely and like to fall? But these theological doctrines are fleeting as the leaves on the trees.

Clearly, Emerson and Parker both envisioned true religion as a personal rather than an institutional connection with the divine.

A third reason for the rise of Transcendentalism was the increasing interest in and availability of foreign literature and philosophy after 1800. Americans were traveling and studying in Europe, and some of them brought books back to America when they returned home. The Reverend Joseph Stevens Buckminster traveled to Europe in 1801, studied Biblical scholarship and European methods of Biblical interpretation, and returned home with about three thousand volumes purchased abroad. In 1815, George Ticknor and Edward Everett went to Europe to study. They traveled extensively, studied at the University of Göttingen in Germany (in 1817, Everett because the first American ever to receive a Ph.D. from Göttingen), and returned to America to take up important academic positions at Harvard (Ticknor taught foreign literature, Everett Greek). Emerson, significantly, was one of their students. Ticknor and Everett also brought back large numbers of books — Ticknor for his personal library, Everett for Harvard's library. Charles Follen, a German political refugee, was another influential Harvard teacher. In 1830, the first professor of German literature at Harvard, Follen was very familiar with the writings of Kant.

During this period, too, translations into English from European works began to make foreign thought and writing more available. The Reverend Moses Stuart, a professor at the Andover Theological Seminary, was translating grammars of Greek and Hebrew from German in the early nineteenth century. More significantly, in 1813, Madame de Stäel's De L'Allemagne was translated into English under the title Germany; a New York edition came out in 1814. (Madame de Stäel was a favorite writer of the Transcendentalists, and was seen as a kind of archetypal intellectual woman.)

At the same time, many in England and America were exposed to German thought and literature through the writings of Coleridge and Carlyle. Coleridge's Aids to Reflection (first published in 1825) was edited in 1829 by James Marsh, who added a lengthy introduction elucidating German philosophy for American readers. Carlyle wrote a life of Schiller and translated from Goethe. Between 1838 and 1842, George Ripley edited and published, in fourteen volumes, a set titled Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature, which included translations from French and German writings. In 1840, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody opened a circulating library and bookstore on West Street in Boston to supply her comrades with foreign works.

Among the many foreign authors who influenced the Transcendentalists were the Germans Kant, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Schelling, Goethe, and Novalis; the French Cousin and Constant; the English writers Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth; Plato and English Neoplatonic writers; Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg; and the Eastern writings of Confucius and sacred texts of the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavadgita.