Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism

A Brief Introduction

Paul P. Reuben
October 17, 2016

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The Assumed, Presumed, or the Self-Identified Transcendentalists | Basic Assumption and Premises | Correspondence | Transcendentalism and the American Past | A Brief Chronology of Events | Basic Tenets of AT | Reasons for the Rise of AT | Transcendental Legacy | Transcendental Journals | Definitions and Comments | The Women's Suffrage Movement | Anti-Slavery Movement | The Utopian Movement | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page | 

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Note: Nineteenth Century American Transcendentalism is not a religion (in the traditional sense of the word); it is a pragmatic philosophy, a state of mind, and a form of spirituality. It is not a religion because it does not adhere to the three concepts common in major religions: a. a belief in a God; b. a belief in an afterlife (dualism); and c. a belief that this life has consequences on the next (if you're good in this life, you go to heaven in the next, etc.). Transcendentalism is monist; it does not reject an afterlife, but its emphasis is on this life.

The Assumed, Presumed, or the Self-Identified Transcendentalists

The Big Three:
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller.


Amos Bronson Alcott, Orestes Augustus Brownson, William Ellery Channing, William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Charles Anderson Dana, John Sullivan Dwight, Sarah & Angelina Grimke, Sophia Peabody-Hawthorne, Frederick Henry Hedge, James Marsh, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, George & Sophia Ripley, Jones Very, and others.

Central Points of Agreement

NOTE : The Transcendentalists, in keeping with the individualistic nature of this philosophy, disagreed readily with each other. Here are four points of general agreement:

Basic Assumption:

The intuitive faculty, instead of the rational or sensical, became the means for a conscious union of the individual psyche (known in Sanskrit as Atman) with the world psyche also known as the Oversoul, life-force, prime mover and God (known in Sanskrit as Brahma).

| Top | Basic Premises:

1. An individual is the spiritual center of the universe - and in an individual can be found the clue to nature, history and, ultimately, the cosmos itself. It is not a rejection of the existence of God, but a preference to explain an individual and the world in terms of an individual.

2. The structure of the universe literally duplicates the structure of the individual self - all knowledge, therefore, begins with self-knowledge. This is similar to Aristotle's dictum "know thyself."

3. Transcendentalists accepted the neo-Platonic conception of nature as a living mystery, full of signs - nature is symbolic.

4. The belief that individual virtue and happiness depend upon self-realization - this depends upon the reconciliation of two universal psychological tendencies:

a. the expansive or self-transcending tendency - a desire to embrace the whole world - to know and become one with the world.

b. the contracting or self-asserting tendency - the desire to withdraw, remain unique and separate - an egotistical existence.

This dualism assumes our two psychological needs; the contracting: being unique, different, special, having a racial identity,ego-centered, selfish, and so on; the expansive: being the same as others, altruistic, be one of the human race, and so on.

The transcendentalist expectation is to move from the contracting to the expansive. This dualism has aspects of Freudian id and superego; the Jungian shadow and persona, the Chinese ying/yang, and the Hindu movement from Atman (egotistic existence) to Brahma (cosmic existence).


It is a concept which suggests that the external is united with the internal. Physical or material nature is neutral or indifferent or objective; it is neither helpful nor hurtful; it is neither beautiful nor ugly. What makes one give such attributes to nature is that individual's imposition of her/his temperament or mood or psyche. If I'm feeling lousy, I may dismiss a gorgeous day; if I'm feeling bright and cheerful then the most dreary of days becomes tolerable. And so, the Transcendentalists believed that "knowing yourself" and "studying nature" is the same activity. Nature mirrors our psyche. If I cannot understand myself, may be understanding nature will help. Here is Darrel Abel's "take" on this concept:

"Since one divine character was immanent everywhere in nature and in man, man's reason could discern the spiritual ideas in nature and his senses could register impressions of the material forms of nature. To man the subject, nature the object, which shared the same divine constitution as himself, presented external images to the innate ideas in his soul. " (American Literature, Vol. 2, 1963, 4-5.)

Transcendentalism and the American Past

Transcendentalism as a movement is rooted in the American past: To Puritanism it owed its pervasive morality and the "doctrine of divine light." It is also similar to the Quaker "inner light." However, both these concepts assume acts of God, whereas intuition is an act of an individual. In Unitarianism, deity was reduced to a kind of immanent principle in every person - an individual was the true source of moral light. To Romanticism it owed the concept of nature as a living mystery and not a clockwork universe (deism) which is fixed and permanent.
A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836

Transcendentalism was a 1. spiritual, 2. philosophical and 3. literary movement and is located in the history of American Thought as

(a). Post-Unitarian and free thinking in religious spirituality
(b). Kantian and idealistic in philosophy and
(c). Romantic and individualistic in literature.

| Top | A Brief Chronology of Events

1832 Emerson resigns the ministry of the Unitarian Church - unable to administer the holy communion.
1836 The annus mirabilis of the movement, during which Emerson published Nature (the "gospel" of transcendentalism); George Ripley published Discourses on the Philosophy of Religion; Orestes Brownson published New Views of Christianity, Society, and Church; Bronson Alcott published Record of Conversions in the Gospel (based on classroom discussions in his Temple School in Boston, and provoking severe criticism); the Transcendental Club, also known as Hedge's Club, met for the first time.
1837 Emerson delivers his Phi Beta Kappa address on "The American Scholar" at Harvard, which James Russell Lowell called "an event without former parallel in our literary annals."
1838 Emerson delivers his Divinity School Address at Harvard which touched off a great storm in religious circles.
1840 The founding of the Dial, a Transcendental magazine, which "enjoyed its obscurity," to use Emerson's words, for four years.
1841 The launching of George Ripley's Brook Farm - a utopian experiment. Hawthorne was a resident there for a short time and wrote The Blithedale Romance based upon his experience there.
1842 Alcott's utopian experiment at Fruitlands.
1845 Thoreau goes to live at Walden Pond.
1846 Thoreau is put in jail for his refusal to pay poll tax.
1850 Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Transcendentalists found themselves increasingly involved in abolition of slavery.
1855 Walt Whitman publishes his Leaves of Grass.
1859 Charles Darwin's Origin of Species is published.
1862 Henry David Thoreau dies.

| Top | Basic Tenets of American Transcendentalism

Note : This list must not be considered to be a creed common to all transcendentalists. It is merely a grouping of certain important concepts shared by many of them.

1. Transcendentalism, essentially, is a form of idealism.
2. The transcendentalist "transcends" or rises above the lower animalistic impulses of life (animal drives) and moves from the rational to a spiritual realm.
3. The human soul is part of the Oversoul or universal spirit (or "float" for Whitman) to which it and other souls return at death.
4. Therefore, every individual is to be respected because everyone has a portion of that Oversoul (God).
5. This Oversoul or Life Force or God can be found everywhere - travel to holy places is, therefore, not necessary.
6. God can be found in both nature and human nature (Nature, Emerson stated, has spiritual manifestations).
7. Jesus also had part of God in himself - he was divine as everyone is divine - except in that he lived an exemplary and transcendental life and made the best use of that Power which is within each one.
8. "Miracle is monster." The miracles of the Bible are not to be regarded as important as they were to the people of the past. Miracles are all about us - the whole world is a miracle and the smallest creature is one. "A mouse is a miracle enough to stagger quintillions of infidels." - Whitman
9. More important than a concern about the afterlife, should be a concern for this life - "the one thing in the world of value is the active soul." - Emerson
10. Death is never to be feared, for at death the soul merely passes to the oversoul.
11. Emphasis should be placed on the here and now. "Give me one world at a time." - Thoreau
12. Evil is a negative - merely an absence of good. Light is more powerful than darkness because one ray of light penetrates the dark. In other words, there is no belief in the existence of Satan as an active entity forcing humans to commit immorality. Humans are good and if they do immoral acts they do so out of ignorance and by not thinking.
13. Power is to be obtained by defying fate or predestination, which seem to work against humans, by exercising one's own spiritual and moral strength. Emphasis on self-reliance.
14. Hence, the emphasis is placed on a human thinking.
15. The transcendentalists see the necessity of examples of great leaders, writers, philosophers, and others, to show what an individual can become through thinking and action.
16. It is foolish to worry about consistency, because what an intelligent person believes tomorrow, if he/she trusts oneself, tomorrow may be completely different from what that person thinks and believes today. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." - Emerson
17. The unity of life and universe must be realized. There is a relationship between all things.
18. One must have faith in intuition, for no church or creed can communicate truth.
19. Reform must not be emphasized - true reform comes from within.

Reasons for the Rise of American Transcendentalism

There was no one precise "cause" for the beginning of Transcendentalism. According to Paul Boller, chance, coincidence and several independent events, thoughts and tendencies seemed to have converged in the 1830s in New England. Some of these were:

1. The steady erosion of Calvinism.
2. The progressive secularization of modern thought under the impact of science and technology.
3. The emergence of a Unitarian intelligentsia with the means, leisure, and training to pursue literature and scholarship.
4. The increasing insipidity and irrelevance of liberal religion to questing young minds - lack of involvement in women's rights and abolitionism.
5. The intrusion of the machine into the New England garden and the disruption of the old order by the burgeoning industrialism.
6. The impact of European ideas on Americans traveling abroad.
7. The appearance of talented and energetic young people like Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau on the scene.
8. The imperatives of logic itself for those who take ideas seriously - the impossibility, for instance, of accepting modern science without revising traditional religious views.

Transcendental Legacy

1. Professed post-Civil war Transcendentalist: Samuel Johnson, John Weiss, Samuel Longfellow, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, David A. Wasson, Moncure Conway, and Octavius B. Frothingham.
2. The influence on contemporary writers: Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson.
3. The Concord School of Philosophy founded by A. Bronson Alcott and William T. Harris in 1879.
4. The Movements: Mind Cure through Positive Thinking - Christian Science (Mary Baker Eddy) and New Thought (Warren F. Evans).
5. William James and his ideas on the "subconscious."
6. The influence on Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. M. L. King, Jr. and others who protested using civil disobedience.
7. The influence on the "beat" generation of the 1950s and the "young radicals" of the '60s and '70s who practised dissent, anti-materialism, anti-war, and anti-work ethic sentiments.
8. The influence on Modernist writers like: Frost, Stevens, O'Neill, Ginsberg.
9. The popularity of Transcendental Meditation, Black Power, Feminism, and sexual freedoms.

| Top | Transcendental Journals

1835-1841 The Western Messenger (Cincinnati, ed. James Freeman Clarke, 1836-39, and Christopher Pearse Cranch))

1838-1842 Boston Quarterly Review (ed. Orestes Brownson)

1840-1844 The Dial (eds. Margaret Fuller, till 1842, and R. W. Emerson)

1843-1844 The Present (ed. William Henry Channing)

1843 The Phalanx became

1845-1849 Harbinger (ed. George Ripley)

1847-1850 Massachusetts Quarterly Review (ed. Theodore Parker)

1849 Aesthetic Papers (ed. Elizabeth Peabody; famous for publishing Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" or "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience")

1849-1850 Spirit of the Age

Important ideas from: Warren, Robert Penn, Cleanth Brooks, and R. W. B. Lewis. "A National Literature and Romantic Individualism." in Romanticism. eds. James Barbour and Thomas Quirk. NY: Garland, 1986, 3-24.

For comments on Romanticism, go to Chap. 3

1. Transcendentalism was a philosophical, literary, social, and theological movement.

2. Its origin is traced to the relaxing of Puritan Calvinism into Unitarianism - a belief very much like Deism. From its early liberalism, Unitarianism developed, for some of the young intellectuals, into "a new orthodoxy of smug social conformity that denied the spiritual and emotional depths of experience - 'corpse-cold Unitarianism,' as Emerson was to call it." (11)

3. German and English Romanticism provided some inspiration towards the search for some deeper 'truth.'

4. "Transcendentalism represented a complex response to the democratization of American life, to the rise of science and the new technology, and to the new industrialism - to the whole question, in short, of the redefinition of the relation of man to nature and to other men that was being demanded by the course of history." (11-12)

5. Influences:

a. From Plato came the idealism according to which reality subsists beyond the appearances of the world. Plato also suggests that the world is an expression of spirit, or mind, which is sheer intelligibility and therefore good.

b. From Immanuel Kant came the notion of the 'native spontaneity of the human mind' against the passive conception of the 18th c. sensational theory (also known as the philosophy of empiricism of John Locke and David Hume; the concept that the mind begins as a tabula rasa and that all knowledge develops from sensation).

c. From Coleridge came the importance of wonder, of antirationalism, and the importance of individual consciousness.

d. From Puritanism came the ethical seriousness and the aspect of Jonathan Edwards that suggested that an individual can receive divine light immediately and directly.

6. "Transcendentalism was, at its core, a philosophy of naked individualism, aimed at the creation of the new American, the self-reliant man, complete and independent." (22)

7. "The achievement of the transcendentalists has a grandeur. They did confront, and helped define, the great issues of their time, and if they did not resolve those issues, we of the late twentieth century, who have not yet resolved them, are in no position to look down our noses at their effort." (23)

| Top | Towards a Definition of Transcendentalism: A Few Comments

(from Henry David Gray, Emerson: A Statement of N. E. Transcendentalism as Expressed in the Philosophy of Its Chief Exponent, 1917)

1. "The spirit of the time is in every form a protest against usage and a search for principles." - Emerson in the opening number of The Dial.

2. "I was given to understand that whatever was unintelligible would be certainly Transcendental." - Charles Dickens in American Notes

3. "I should have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist. That would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations." - Thoreau, Journal, V:4

4. "The word Transcendentalism, as used at the present day, has two applications. One of which is popular and indefinite, the other, philosophical and precise. In the former sense it describes man, rather than opinions, since it is freely extended to those who hold opinions, not only diverse from each other, but directly opposed." - Noah Porter, 1842

5. Transcendentalism is the recognition in man of the capacity of knowing truth intuitively, or of attaining a scientific knowledge of an order of existence transcending the reach of the senses, and of which we can have no sensible experience." - J. A. Saxton, Dial II: 90

6. "Literally a passing beyond all media in the approach to the Deity, Transcendentalism contained an effort to establish, mainly by the discipline of the intuitive faculty, direct intercourse between the soul and God." - Charles J. Woodbury in Talks with Ralph Waldo Emerson

7. "Transcendentalism was not ... speculative, but essentially practical and reformatory." - John Orr in "The Transcendentalism of New England," International Review, XIII: 390

8. "Transcendentalism was a distinct philosophical system. Practically it was an assertion of the inalienable worth of man; theoretically it was an assertion of the immanence of divinity in instinct, the transference of supernatural attributes to the natural constitution of mankind. ... Transcendentalism is usually spoken of as a philosophy. It is more justly regarded as a gospel. As a philosophy it is ... so far from uniform, that it may rather be considered several systems than one. ... Transcendentalism was ... an enthusiasm, a wave of sentiment, a breath of mind." - O. B. Frothingham in Transcendentalism in New England, 1876

9. "The problem of transcendental philosophy is no less than this, to revise the experience of mankind and try its teachings by the nature of mankind, to test ethics by conscience, science by reason; to try the creeds of the churches, the constitution of the states, by the constitution of the universe." - Theodore Parker in Works VI: 37

10. "We feel it to be a solemn duty to warn our readers, and in our measure, the public, against this German atheism, which the spirit of darkness is employing ministers of the gospel to smuggle in among us under false pretenses." Princeton Review XII: 71

| Top | 11. "Protestantism ends in Transcendentalism." - Orestes Brownson in Works, 209

12. "The fundamentals of Transcendentalism are to be felt as sentiments, or grasped by the imagination as poetical wholes, rather than set down in propositions." - Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1887, I: 248

13. "First and foremost, it can only be rightly conceived as an intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual ferment, not a strictly reasoned doctrine. It was a renaissance of conscious, living faith in the power of reason, in the reality of spiritual insight, in the privilege, beauty, and glory of life." - Frances Tiffany, "Transcendentalism: The New England Renaissance," Unitarian Review, XXXI: 111.

14. "The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. ... If there is anything grand or daring in human thought or virtue, any reliance on the vast, the unknown; any presentiment, any extravagance of faith, the spiritualist adopts it as most in nature. The oriental mind has always tended to this largeness. Buddhism is an expression of it. The Buddhist ... is a Transcendentalist. ... Shall we say then that Transcendentalism is the Saturnalia or excess of Faith; the presentiment of a faith proper to man in his integrity, excessive only when his imperfect obedience hinders the satisfaction of his wish?" - Ralph Waldo Emerson's lecture on "The Transcendentalist," Works I: 317-320

15. "(Transcendentalism was) a blending of Platonic metaphysics and the Puritan spirit, of a philosophy and a character ... taking place at a definite time, in a specially fertilized soil, under particular conditions." - H. C. Goddard, Studies in New England Transcendentalism, 1908.

16. "If I were a Bostonian, I think I would be a Transcendentalist." - Charles Dickens in American Notes

(Sources: Boller, Paul F. American Transcendentalism, 1830-1860: An Intellectual Inquiry. NY: Putnam, 1974. (B905 B64); Koster, Donald. Transcendentalism in America. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975. (B905 K67); andother resources listed in the Selected Bibliography page and individual author pages in this chapter.)

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