Thursday, November 12, 2009


Who is this man, and why is he staring off into the middle distance? It's a young-ish Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord, whose philosophy, articulated in a series of essays, spawned the movement we know as Transcendentalism. Emerson looks so calm and assured because nothing really bad ever happened to him.

Transcendentalism has its roots in Romanticism and its head in the clouds. Its heyday was from roughly 1835 to 1845, but its influence permeated the 19th Century. We can see its Romantic roots in the following tenets:

* People are basically Good.
* Nature is Good and the source of all Goodness.
* People can be perfect, and have unlimited potential.
* Individual experience is the only experience that matters.

It differed from Romanticism in that it taught that men and women were equal, and that the mind controlled the world, not the other way around.

The Transcendentalists' view of religion gave rise to Unitarianism as we know it. It differed significantly from earlier views, and was a complete rejection of Puritanical Calvinism. In short, it taught:

* God can be known, through nature and individual experience.
* God is in everyone, and everyone is in God.
* Everyone is part of a universal "over-soul" that unites all of humanity in Goodness.
* All religions hold some truth, and no one religion is right or wrong. Religion, however, is not necessary for a relationship with God.
* The Bible is unnecessary, because it is too narrow.
* Jesus is unnecessary, because people are Good and don't need a savior.
* Miracles don't happen, and never have.
* Human religious traditions are unnecessary and harmful.

Transcendentalists had a very Platonic idea of the world -- they believed that Truth existed outside our physical sphere, and could be found out there, along with idealized versions of things that our reality merely copies. Perfection could be dragged, presumably kicking and screaming, because that's always how things are dragged in literature, into reality by study, solitary contemplation of nature, and the exercise of optimism.

As a philosophy, Transcendentalism was positive and optimistic. It affirmed the worth of every person, and the dignity of humankind. As a practice, Transcendentalism, well, sucked. The 19th Century is replete with stories of communities founded to create (does this sound familiar at all?) perfect societies. The trouble was, people didn't behave in those "Good" ways that they were supposed to. It is a tribute to the firmness of the Transcendentalists' beliefs that they didn't turn cynical sooner, as one utopian community after another failed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson stands out as the primary articulator of Transcendental thought, but he had lots of company. Margaret Fuller was his co-editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, and had a very interesting literary (and personal) career. Henry David Thoreau went into the woods to find himself, and his chronicle of that experience has inspired generations of solitary thinkers and environmentalists. Bronson Alcott embodied the belief that people were Good and could have perfect societies, and even though he failed to create any, he managed to hang onto that belief. He also fathered Louisa May Alcott, whose Little Women books continue to charm their readers.


  1. After reading that description it seems obvious why its "heyday" was only 10 years...

  2. Which one wandered into the wilderness to find himself and nearly died? Because that makes me laugh.

  3. Yeah, the trouble with the kind of relentless optimism that Transcendentals had, is it keeps bumping into human nature, which isn't all that "Good." And Suz, you're thinking of Thoreau, who went out to commune with nature near Mt. Katahdin in Maine and nearly died of exposure in a snowstorm. He discovered, to his horror, that Emerson was dead wrong about nature -- it doesn't care AT ALL whether one person lives or dies. It's not really going to take care of you if you're stupid enough to go into the woods in winter unprepared. What amazes me is that Emerson wrote as if he really believed Nature (note the capital letter) was benevolent. But then, he never ventured too far from his comfy farmhouse . . .

  4. Thoreau took the road less traveled...and NATURE TRIED TO MURDER HIM FOR TI!

  5. Genny said...

    HaHa! I agree completely with Brent. When I was reading this I was kind of hoping at the end you would be like "Just Kidding, thats not what they thought." I mean their believes were just nutty for the most part. And, although Thoreau is one of my favorite writers you really have to wonder what made them believe the things they did.

  6. When I think of this movement and any other movement that we have learned about, it makes me want to start a movement of my own. Maybe then I could get people to think and do crazy random things. I still don’t understand how so many people could be warped into believing some of the movements we have learned about this semester. At least in this movement men and women were equal and that’s probably why it didn’t last very long. Who knows I’m just glad I have the freedom to think and believe in anything I want.

  7. I am very glad that things are not still the same way today. I really dont think I could live like this. However, if it's the only thing you know maybe you wouldn't think it was so bad. I also wonder what made them develop these interesting views.
    -Katy Simpkins

  8. Adam said...
    I'm sorry, but I was taught that evolution made use smarter. Apparently not, nature seem like it would be an awesome thing to look after me, not! I read this and i only wonder how the human race has made it this long!