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Transcendentalism was the name of a group of new ideas in literature, religion, culture and philosophy which emerged in New England in the early- to mid-nineteenth century. (It is sometimes called "American Transcendentalism" to distinguish it from other uses of the word transcendental.) It began as a protest against the general state of culture and society at the time, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian church which was taught at Harvard Divinity School.
The publication of Emerson's 1836 essay Nature is usually taken to be the watershed moment at which Transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson wrote: "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds...A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men." Emerson closed the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from the new idealist philosophy:
- So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, - What is truth? and of the affections,— What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. ... Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.
In the same year Transcendentalism became a coherent movement with the founding of the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1836, by prominent New England intellectuals including George Putnam, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Henry Hedge.
The practical aims of the Transcendentalists were varied; some among the group linked it with utopian social change (and, in the case of Brownson, it joined explicitly with early socialism), while others found it an exclusively individual and idealist project. Emerson was a partisan of the second view. In his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist," Emerson suggested that the goal of a purely Transcendental outlook on life was impossible to attain in practice:
- You will see by this sketch that there is no such thing as a Transcendental party; that there is no pure Transcendentalist; that we know of no one but prophets and heralds of such a philosophy; that all who by strong bias of nature have leaned to the spiritual side in doctrine, have stopped short of their goal. We have had many harbingers and forerunners; but of a purely spiritual life, history has afforded no example. I mean, we have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels' food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands. ... Shall we say, then, that Transcendentalism is the Saturnalia or excess of Faith; the presentiment of a faith proper to man in his integrity, excessive only when his imperfect obedience hinders the satsifaction of his wish.
Transcendentalism was rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German Idealism more generally), which the New England intellectuals of the early nineteenth century embraced as an alternative to the Lockean "sensualism " of their fathers and of the Unitarian church, finding this alternative in Vedic thought, German idealism, and English Romanticism.
The Transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles: principles not based on, or falsifiable by, sensuous experience, but deriving from the inner, spiritual or mental essence of the human. Kant had called "all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects." The Transcendentalists were largely unacquainted with German philosophy in the original, and relied primarily on the writings of Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Victor Cousin, Germaine de StaŽl, and other English and French commentators for their knowledge of it. In contrast, they were intimately familiar with the English Romantics, and the Transcendental movement may be partially described as a slightly later, American outgrowth of Romanticism. Another major influence was the mystical spiritualism of Emanuel Swedenborg.
Thoreau in Walden spoke of the debt to the Vedic thought directly, as did other members of the movement:
- In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma, and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water-jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.
Other meanings of transcendentalism
Another alternative meaning for transcendentalism is the classical philosophy that God transcends the manifest world. As John Scotus Erigena put it to Frankish king Charles the Bald in the year 840 A.D., "We do not know what God is. God himself doesn't know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being."
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