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What Is Transcendentalism? Understanding the Movement

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Jul 23, 2019 12:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Confused about transcendentalism? You’re not alone! Transcendentalism is a movement that many people developed over a long period of time, and as a result, its complexity can make it hard to understand.

That’s where we come in. Read this article to learn a simple but complete transcendentalism definition, key transcendentalist beliefs, an overview of the movement's history, key players, and examples of transcendentalist works. By the end, you’ll have all the information you need to write about or discuss the transcendentalist movement.


What Is Transcendentalism?

It’s all about spirituality. Transcendentalism is a philosophy that began in the mid-19th century and whose founding members included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It centers around the belief that spirituality cannot be achieved through reason and rationalism, but instead through self-reflection and intuition. In other words, transcendentalists believe spirituality isn’t something you can explain; it’s something you feel. A transcendentalist would argue that going for a walk in a beautiful place would be a much more spiritual experience than reading a religious text.

The transcendentalism movement arose as a result of a reaction to Unitarianism as well as the Age of Reason. Both centered on reason as the main source of knowledge, but transcendentalists rejected that notion. Some of the transcendentalist beliefs are:

  • Humans are inherently good
  • Society and its institutions such as organized religion and politics are corrupting. Instead of being part of them, humans should strive to be independent and self-reliant
  • Spirituality should come from the self, not organized religion
  • Insight and experience are more important than logic
  • Nature is beautiful, should be deeply appreciated, and shouldn’t be altered by humans

Major Transcendentalist Values

The transcendentalist movement encompassed many beliefs, but these all fit into their three main values of individualism, idealism, and the divinity of nature.

 

Individualism

Perhaps the most important transcendentalist value was the importance of the individual. They saw the individual as pure, and they believed that society and its institutions corrupted this purity. Transcendentalists highly valued the concept of thinking for oneself and believed people were best when they were independent and could think for themselves. Only then could individuals come together and form ideal communities.

 

Idealism

The focus on idealism comes from Romanticism, a slightly earlier movement. Instead of valuing logic and learned knowledge as many educated people at the time did, transcendentalists placed great importance on imagination, intuition and creativity. They saw the values of the Age of Reason as controlling and confining, and they wanted to bring back a more “ideal” and enjoyable way of living.

 

Divinity of Nature

Transcendentalists didn’t believe in organized religion, but they were very spiritual. Instead of believing in the divinity of religious figures, they saw nature as sacred and divine. They believed it was crucial for humans to have a close relationship with nature, the same way religious leaders preach about the importance of having a close relationship with God. Transcendentalists saw nature as perfect as it was; humans shouldn’t try to change or improve it.

 

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History of the Transcendentalist Movement

What’s the history of transcendentalism? Here’s an overview of the movement, covering its beginning, height, and eventual decline.

 

Origins

While people had begun discussing ideas related to transcendentalism since the early 1800s, the movement itself has its origins in 1830s New England, specifically Massachusetts. Unitarianism was the major religion in the area, and it emphasized spirituality and enlightenment through logic, knowledge, and rationality. Young men studying Unitarianism who disagreed with these beliefs began to meet informally. Unitarianism was a particularly large part of life at Harvard University, where many of the first transcendentalists attended school.

In September 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson organized the first meeting of what would later be called the Transcendental Club. Together the group discussed frustrations of Unitarianism and their main beliefs, drawing on ideas from Romanticism, German philosophers, and the Hindu spiritual texts the Upanishads. The transcendentalists begin to publish writings on their beliefs, beginning with Emerson’s essay “Nature.”

 

Height

The Transcendental Club continued to meet regularly, drawing in new members, and key figures, particularly Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, published numerous essays to further spread transcendentalist beliefs. In 1840, the journal The Dial was created for transcendentalists to publish their works. Utopia communities, such as Brook Farm and Fruitlands attempted to make transcendentalism a complete lifestyle.

Decline

By the end of the 1840s, many key transcendentalists had begun to move onto other pursuits, and the movement declined. This decline was further hastened by the untimely death of Margaret Fuller, one of the leading transcendentalists and cofounder of The Dial. While there was a smaller second wave of transcendentalism during this time, the brief resurgence couldn’t bring back the popularity the movement had enjoyed the previous decade, and transcendentalism gradually faded from public discourse, although people still certainly share the movement’s beliefs. Even recently, movies such as The Dead Poets Society and The Lion King express transcendentalist beliefs such as the importance of independent thinking, self-reliance, and enjoying the moment.

 

Key Figures in the Transcendentalist Movement

At its height, many people supported the beliefs of transcendentalism, and numerous well-known names from the 19th century have been associated with the movement. Below are five key transcendentalists.

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson is the key figure in transcendentalism. He brought together many of the original transcendentalists, and his writings form the foundation of many of the movement’s beliefs. The day before he published his essay “Nature” he invited a group of his friends to join the “Transcendental Club” a meeting of like-minded individuals to discuss their beliefs. He continued to host club meetings, write essays, and give speeches to promote transcendentalism. Some of his most important transcendentalist essays include “The Over-Soul,” “Self-Reliance,” “The American Scholar” and “Divinity School Address.”

 

Henry David Thoreau

The second-most important transcendentalist, Thoreau was a friend of Emerson’s who is best known for his book Walden. Walden is focused on the benefits of individualism, simple living and close contact with and observation of nature. Thoreau also frequently opposed the government and its actions, most notably in his essay “Civil Disobedience.”

 

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller was perhaps the leading female transcendentalist. A well-known journalist and ardent supporter of women’s rights, she helped cofound The Dial, the key transcendentalist journal, with Emerson, which helped cement her place in the movement and spread the ideas of transcendentalism to a wider audience. An essay she wrote for the journal was later published as the book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, one of the earliest feminist works in the United States. She believed in  the importance of the individual, but often felt that other transcendentalists, namely Emerson, focused too much on individualism at the expense of social reform.

 

Amos Bronson Alcott

A friend of Emerson’s, Alcott (father of Little Women’s Louisa May Alcott), was an educator known for his innovative ways of teaching and correcting students. He wrote numerous pieces on transcendentalism, but the quality of his writing was such that most were unpublishable. A noted abolitionist, he refused to pay his poll tax to protest President Tyler’s annexation of Texas as a slave territory. This incident inspired Thoreau to do a similar protest, which led to him writing the essay “Civil Disobedience.”

 

Frederic Henry Hedge

Frederic Henry Hedge met Emerson when both were students at Harvard Divinity School. Hedge was studying to become a Unitarian minister, and he had already spent several years studying music and literature in Germany. Emerson invited him to join the first meeting of the Transcendental Club (originally called Hedge’s Club, after him), and he attended meetings for several years. He wrote some of the earliest pieces later categorized as Transcendentalist works, but he later became somewhat alienated from the group and refused to write pieces for The Dial.

 

George Ripley

Like Hedge, Ripley was also a Unitarian minister and founding member of the Transcendental Club. He founded the Utopian community Brook Farm based on major Transcendentalist beliefs. Brook Farm residents would work the farm (whichever jobs they found most appealing) and use their leisure time to pursue activities they enjoyed, such as dancing, music, games, and reading. However, the farm was never able to do well financially, and the experiment ended after just a few years.

 

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Criticisms of Transcendentalism

From its start, transcendentalism attracted numerous critics for its nontraditional, and sometimes outright alien, ideas. Many transcendentalists were seen as outcasts, and many journals refused to publish works written by them. Below are some of the most common criticisms.

 

Spirituality Over Organized Religion

For most people, the most shocking aspect of transcendentalism was that it promoted individual spirituality over churches and other aspects of organized religion. Religion was the cornerstone of many people’s lives at this time, and any movement that told them it was corrupting and to give it up would have been unfathomable to many.

 

Over-Reliance on Independence

Many people, even some transcendentalists like Margaret Fuller, felt that transcendentalism at times ignored the importance of community bonds and over-emphasized the need to rely on no one but one’s self, to the point of irresponsibility and destructiveness. Some people believe that Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick was written as a critique of complete reliance on independence. In the novel, the character Ahab eschews nearly all bonds of camaraderie and is focused solely on his goal of destroying the white whale. This eventually leads to his death. Margaret Fuller also felt that transcendentalism could be more supportive of community initiatives to better the lives of others, such as by advocating for women’s and children’s rights.

 

Abstract Values

Have a hard time understanding what transcendentalists really wanted? So did a lot of people, and it made them view the movement as nothing more than a bunch of dreamers who enjoyed criticizing traditional values but weren’t sure what they themselves wanted. Edgar Allen Poe accused the movement of promoting “obscurity for obscurity's sake.”

 

Unrealistic Utopian Ideals

Some people viewed the transcendentalists’ focus on enjoying life and maximizing their leisure time as hopelessly naive and idealistic. Criticism frequently focused on the Utopian communities some transcendentalists created to promote communal living and the balance of work and labor. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who stayed at the Brook Farm communal living experiment, disliked his experience so much that he wrote an entire novel, The Blithedale Romance, criticizing the concept and transcendentalist beliefs in general.

 

Major Transcendentalist Works

Many transcendentalists were prolific writers, and examples abound of transcendentalism quotes, essays, books, and more. Below are four examples of transcendentalist works, as well as which of the transcendentalist beliefs they support.

 

Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson wrote this essay in 1841 to share his views on the issue of, you guessed it, self-reliance. Throughout the essay he discusses the importance of individuality and how people must avoid the temptation to conform to society at the expense of their true selves. It also contains the excellent line “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

There are three main ways Emerson says people should practice self-reliance is through non-conformity (“A man must consider what a blindman's-bluff is this game of conformity”), solitude over society (“the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude”), and spirituality that is found in one’s own self (“The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure, that it is profane to seek to interpose helps”). Self-reliance and an emphasis on the individual over community is a core belief of transcendentalism, and this essay was key in developing that view.

 

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Published in 1855, the first edition of Leaves of Grass included 12 untitled poems. Whitman was a fan of Emerson’s and was thrilled when the latter highly praised his work. The poems contain many transcendentalism beliefs, including an appreciation of nature, individualism, and spirituality.

A key example is the poem later titled “Song of Myself” which begins with the line “I celebrate myself” and goes on to extoll the benefits of the individual “Welcome is every organ and attribute of me”, the enjoyment of nature (“The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark colored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn”), the goodness of humans (“You shall possess the good of the earth and sun”), and the connections all humans share (“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”).

 

The Summer Rain” by Henry David Thoreau

This transcendentalism poem, like many of Thoreau’s works, focuses on the beauty and simplicity of nature. Published in 1849, the poem describes the narrator’s delight at being in a meadow during a rainstorm.

The poem frequently mentions the enjoyment that observing nature can bring, and there are many descriptions of the meadow such as, “A clover tuft is pillow for my head/And violets quite overtop my shoes.” But Thoreau also makes a point to show that he believes nature is more enjoyable and a better place to learn from than intellectual pursuits like reading and studying. He begins the poem with this verse: “My books I'd fain cast off, I cannot read/'Twixt every page my thoughts go stray at large/Down in the meadow, where is richer feed,/And will not mind to hit their proper targe” and continues later on with “Here while I lie beneath this walnut bough,/What care I for the Greeks or for Troy town,/If juster battles are enacted now/Between the ants upon this hummock’s crown?”

He makes clear that he is comparing works of Shakespeare and Homer to the joys of nature, and he finds nature the better and more enjoyable way to learn. This is in line with Transcendentalist beliefs that insight and experience are more rewarding than book learning.

 

What Is Beauty?” by Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Child, a women’s rights activist and abolitionist, wrote this essay, which was published in The Dial in 1843. The essay discusses what constitutes beauty and how we can appreciate beauty.

It frequently references the transcendentalist theme that intuition and insight are more important than knowledge for understanding when something is beautiful, such as in the line “Beauty is felt, not seen by the understanding.” All the knowledge in the world can’t explain why we see certain things as beautiful; we simply know that they are.

 

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Summary: Transcendentalism Definition

What’s a good transcendentalism definition? Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement centered around spirituality that was popular in the mid-19th century. Key transcendentalism beliefs were that humans are inherently good but can be corrupted by society and institutions, insight and experience and more important than logic, spirituality should come from the self, not organized religion, and nature is beautiful and should be respected.

The transcendentalist movement reached its height in the 1830s and 1840s and included many well-known people, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Transcendentalists wrote widely, and by reading their works you can get a better sense of the movement and its core beliefs.

 

What's Next?

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



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