Topics: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalism, Henry David Thoreau Pages: 9 (2781 words) Published: July 25, 2013
Chapter 4: Early Nineteenth Century - American Transcendentalism (AT): A Brief Introduction Paul P. Reuben

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:

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).

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.


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...
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