Transcendentalism can be defined as a belief system that adheres to the existence of a higher spiritual reality. This ideal reality transcends empirical knowledge and can only be experienced through intuitive, spiritual experience. At first look, this definition seems like it could have aspects in many religions and philosophies, and indeed it does seem to lend itself to any mystical or supernatural idea. So how can we understand transcendentalism for what it truly is? We begin by looking at the history of transcendentalist thought, and then explore the ideas and contributions of some of it’s major thinkers.
Transcendentalism begins as a form of Unitarianism, which itself begins as a deviation from orthodox Calvinism. Unitarians rejected the Calvin doctrines of predestination and the Trinity. Predestination is the belief that all events, including those in the next life, have already been determined and are now unavoidable; therefore free will does not exist. Many people, including Unitarians, find this outlook as rather bleak. Calvinists in the 18th and early 19th centuries also had a habit of encouraging speculation on who was destined to be saved, a rather alienating (not to mention philosophically pointless) practice. Unitarians believe in free will, and hold that one can create one’s own “fate”. The Unitarians gain their name from their rejection of the Trinity, or the mainstream Christian idea that God is one being with three consciousnesses or manifestations. While various groups had various ways of interpreting Christianity this way, usually by rejecting the divinity of Jesus, all agreed that God is one and only one personage or consciousness. William Ellery Channing is considered the Unitarians leading pastor at the time, in part because he adopted the once derogatory term Unitarian to describe his beliefs in 1819. He greatly influenced transcendentalists by his proposition that humans could “partake” of divinity and therefore become closer to and more like God.
However, transcendentalists did reject the idea that miracles proved the truth of religion, an attempt to prove the existence of God empirically. In an address to the
While transcendentalism can be seen as a mode of thought, there are key components thereof and, as Emerson pointed out, it has root in philosophical traditions of Plato, Hume, and Kant. Transcendentalism holds that a) Each individual has free will and a portion of divinity within them and can receive personal revelation through the form of intuition; b) This world is an often symbolic representation of higher powers; c) Science, the senses, and institutions (including religion) can only go so far to help us understand this world and the “higher reality”. It is intuition and the action of the individual that must do the rest. Transcendentalist thought has had immense influence on American art and spirituality to this day, but we will focus on four major thinkers and their ideas to better understand this radical belief system.
The Eccentric: Amos Bronson Alcott
"The good Alcott; with his long, lean face and figure, with his worn gray temples and mild, radiant eyes; all bent on saving the world by a return to acorns and the golden age; he comes before one like a venerable Don Quixote, whom nobody can laugh at without loving." –Thomas Carlyle
The most extreme transcendentalist was Amos Bronson Alcott. Alcott received very little formal school, however he managed to teach himself to read and write, becoming a self-educator and an innovative educator of others.
Deviating sharply from the norm, Alcott believed that education should be about freeing the child to follow his/her natural impulses. It should also be philosophical and physical in nature. Alcott introduced gymnastics, playtime, and even human physiology into classrooms, reflecting his belief that mind and body were of equal importance. He used teaching techniques such as the honor system and Socratic dialogue. His methods raised much suspicion and when he admitted an African-American child into his school in
Alcott was very mystical, even for a transcendentalist. He believed that spirit was the only reality, everything else emanated from it. He believed in intuition to the point of visions, and that humanity had been in an existence before the current one, or preexistence. He also thought that humans can find truth without organized religion, an idea that attracted many to transcendentalism.
Transcendentalists were criticized as being brilliant but impractical, and this was certainly true of Alcott. However, in Conord, Alcott was able to do his job freely and met with success. He started the Concord Summer School of Philosophy and Literature, which ran for nine years. Despite his radicalness at the time, Alcott influenced many modern educators by expounding the idea of a teacher having responsibility to the students.
The Sage: Ralph Waldo Emerson
“How rare he was; how original in thought; how true in character!” –The
Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered “the most thought-provoking American cultural leader of the mid-nineteenth century”. Though he was a dissident and unorthodox, at his death at age seventy-nine he was eulogized extravagantly.
Emerson was the son and grandson of ministers, and despite being raised by a poor single mother, entered Harvard at age fourteen. He became a Unitarian minister at age twenty-three. As we have seen above, he eventually left the church; among other things, he no longer believed in Communion. He became a popular attraction at lecture clubs, eventually organizing his own courses. These later comprised his books. While Emerson’s lectures were not always agreed with, or even understood, they were always popular. He created controversy by attacking materialism, organized religion and slavery. He is considered the epitomal transcendentalist, though he never seemed comfortable with that term. He did hold to the ideas of individuality, and wrote of something called the Over-Soul, which we should try to harmonize with. (This can be compared to the Holy Spirit or Tao.) Emerson’s real purpose was to help create an American culture, which he certainly has done. He wrote and lectured about man’s nobility, nature’s link to spirituality, and God’s relation to the Universe. He was an amazing writer, poetic in his prose. His legacy is that of a brilliant writer and speaker, wise and sincere.
The Prodigy: Sarah Margaret Fuller
“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” –Sarah Margaret Fuller
Sarah Margaret Fuller is one of the many under-appreciated women of history, however it may be because her life ended tragically, rather than due to her womanhood. One gets the impression that Fuller would not let that happen. Fuller’s father was supportive of her education, beginning her Latin lessons at six. She soon was reading classical literature and writing.
Fuller began giving lectures at clubs, but soon faced criticism for speaking to audiences that included men. Rather than retreating into obscurity, she cleverly decided to give lectures at home, as “conversations”. This resulted in her book Women in the Nineteenth Century, in which she discussed social restrictions on women, as well as how they could fulfill their potential. Fuller became the editor of the transcendentalist journal The Dial. Her excellent artistic and literary criticism got her a job as a critic for the New York Tribune.
Fuller eventually settled in
The Rebel: Henry David Thoreau
“His soul was made for the noblest society.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Henry David Thoreau has had a global influence, particularly the idea of civil disobedience, which influenced, among others, Mohandas Gandhi. He was also a notable nature writer.
Thoreau gained a reputation as an individualist at Harvard. While not unpopular, he spent his time writing, determined to be a writer no matter what. Of course, this was an impractical career, and most of Thoreau’s life was spent attempting to survive and write at the same time.
Thoreau’s ideas mainly focused on nature, to which he seemed almost addicted. While transcendentalism holds nature as a symbol of higher truths, Thoreau nearly deifies it. He also argued heavily for individual conscience, taking ideas of individuality and intuition to the fullest-one could (and should) break the law if that is what conscience dictates. He was even arrested for refusing to pay taxes to support a nation involved in slavery, and usually preached pacifism. He also believed one’s energy should be fully focused on what one thinks is right, avoiding any distractions, and felt that people enslave themselves at every turn. Walden, his most famous work, is essentially advice on how to avoid distraction and slavery, as well as a triumphant denial of society’s superficial values. The original title-page featured a rooster, a symbol of cocky defiance.
Thoreau was most admired by his friends (and is admired today) for his complete application of philosophical principles. While many hold philosophy or religion in the abstract, Thoreau sees it as reality. As Emerson said, he “wished to settle all his practice on an ideal foundation.”
Goodman, Russell, "Transcendentalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =