Transcendentalism - Part 2 - Transcendentalism Essay Example
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Transcendentalism was a 19th- century American philosophy that emphasized the
Unity of spirit and nature. Its most renowned spokesman was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called it “the Saturnalia or excess of Faith.” That which is popularly called Transcendentalism, he wrote, “is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842” (Emerson, 198, 193).
Originally applied to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the term transcendentalism was used to describe Kant’s philosophy, a view that claims that certain knowledge of the mental world and the basic structures of human thought are possible (Andrews 3). German Idealists such as Kant believed that knowledge was not only rooted in sense experience but that some knowledge is rooted in the inner reality and rational structure of the human mind. At the time, British and American philosophers believed that knowledge was only derived from sense experience, whereas Kant and the transcendentalists thought that knowledge of the mind itself was possible.
Rather than being a well-organized and clearly defined movement, transcendentalism was instead the name given to a loosely knit group of authors, preachers, and lectures bound together by their opposition to certain beliefs and practices. The transcendentalists shared a disdain for Unitarian orthodoxy, a desire to free American culture from bondage to deal traditions, and faith in the vast potential of democratic life in America. Situated in and near Concord, Massachusetts, between 1835 and 1860, the transcendentalists formed a loose federation of kindred spirits rather than a disciplined, narrowly defined group.
Emerson was clearly the central figure of transcendentalism; the publication of his Nature in 1836 marked the beginning of the movement. The next two decades were to see numerous additional works from Emerson and poems, essays, and books from other transcendentalists, such as Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau. These figures and others formed a discussion group called the Transcendental Club, published a literary journal, The Dial, and established a – utopian experiment in communal living at Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.
What bound the members of the group together was a common heritage in Massachusetts Unitarianism, which each of them subsequently rejected. They objected to the Unitarian commitment to certain particulars of Christians – dogma, including belief in the uniqueness of Jesus and the efficacy of the – sacraments. According to Emerson, instead of preaching a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man, the church has dwelt, it dwells with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus’; it preaches not the doctrine of the – soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual.” Emerson challenged his audience to “dare to love God without mediator or veil” by seeking direct access to the Deity unmediated by Scripture or tradition (pp. 99, 81, 89).
One may further recognize the futility of later attempts to define transcendentalism if one undertakes to study the utterances made on the subject by its exponents and their contemporaries. In 1842 there appeared in Boston a tract of one hundred and four pages calculated to explain the matter. Its author, possibly Charles Mayo Ellis, wrote:
This, then is the doctrine of Transcendentalism – the substantive, independent existence of the soul of man, the reality of conscience, the religious sense, the inner light, of man’s religious affections, his knowledge of right and truth, his sense of duty, the homestem [sic] apart from the utile – his love for beauty and holiness, his religious aspirations – with this it starts as something not dependent on education, custom, command, or anything beyond man himself.(19)
Although contemporaries of the movement were not able to say what transcendentalism was, they knew who the transcendentalists were. There is a tendency at present to include among their number such literary figures as Melville and Whitman, who assuredly did not regard themselves as transcendentalists (VI, 160). In the theology of certain sects sanctification is treated in a two-fold manner: in a broader and in a narrower sense. For historical purposes a similar dichotomy might be made in a discussion of transcendentalism. In the broader sense one may include the philosophical notions of Whitman and Melville if circumstances seem to warrant. Of the exponents of transcendentalism in the narrow sense only those who were actually regarded by their contemporaries as such ought to be mentioned. These, of course, were practically all Unitarians at one time or another.
In the opinion of the present writer, transcendentalism was not primarily a philosophy or a reform movement: it was a mental and spiritual attitude. Essentially, it sought to find the source of all truth within the nature of man. Where the intellect failed to supply the necessary grounds for knowledge, the soul, or spiritual intuition, came to the rescue. Although there was a considerable variation in the degree to which the transcendentalists exalted intuition over sense, all of them were potentially mystics. The chief manifestation of transcendentalism was in the sphere sense might be defined as Unitarianism in the process of getting religion.
The origin of transcendentalism can be explained in a number of ways. It may have arisen as a natural reaction against the empirical philosophy of Locke, which dominated the religious opinions of the earlier Unitarians. Its fundamental principle, a belief in the infallibility of intuition, may have owned much to the writings of the Quakers, of Cudworth and Henry More, and the earlier works of Jonathan Edwards – all of which formed a part of the background of New England thought. But certainly when the transcendentalists began to express themselves in print they borrowed from the terminology of foreign Romantic doctrines retailed to America principally by Coleridge and Vector Cousin.
In conclusion, interesting as the study of the sources of the transcendental movement may be, its history is more important for present purposes, and, accordingly, a brief survey of its course seems desirable. Transcendentalism is difficult to define, and the Transcendentalists defy precise description, but the importance of both the movement and its members is unquestioned. Without a definite creed, Transcendentalism was at once a faith, a philosophy, a mystical religion, and an ethical way of life. A list of those connected with the movement is a roster of the creative minds of New England in the period of its belated but charming cultural flowering. The historian of Transcendentalism and an heir to its tradition and ideals spoke of it as transference of supernatural attributes to the natural construction of mankind.
Andrews, Barry M. Thoreau As Spiritual Guide: A Companion to Walden for Personal
Reflection and Group Discussion. Unitarian Universalist Association of
Ellis, Charles. M. An Essay on Transcendentalism. Boston, Crocker and Ruggles. 1842.
Emerson, W. Ralph. “Essay and Lectures.” J. Porte: New York, 1983.
Whitman, Walt., and Herman Melville. “The Complete Prose Works.” Putnams, Boston
and New York, 1902.