What Was Transcendentalism?

Henry David Thoreau (Wikipedia Commons image)

There’s a school of philosophy lurking behind the great Concord writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson gathered artists and intellectuals to discuss, develop, and live Transcendentalism.

So what is this home-grown philosophy with such an imposing title? Having come of age in the 1960s I recognize many familiar themes in their project.  One might say, in fact, that the Transcendentalists were the hippies of their day. They believed in free love and being close to nature, they turned away from both traditional religion and materialism, and their central goal was self-realization of the individual by transcending the ego to attain union with the whole.

For those of you who recall the 1960s counter-culture, there’s a lot that is familiar about the Concord scene of the 1840-50s: Bronson Alcott’s refusal to accept the idea of private property, his commune Fruitlands, and his radical vegetarianism; Thoreau’s desire to follow the guidance of nature; and Hawthorne’s searing critiques of the dominant religion.

Even if reference to the 1960s doesn’t resonate for you, much of what the Transcendentalists sought remains central to the spiritual lives of many seekers today. Thoreau is famous for suggesting that beneath the surface of everyday life there is a deeper, more coherent reality that can only be accessed by a kind of intuition, and that if we use this natural intuitive faculty we will gain a conscious union of our individual psyche (Atman in Sanskrit) with the world psyche (Brahman). You can see that Emerson and his friends learned much from Eastern thought, which was just becoming known in the West during their day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Wikipedia Commons image)

Like many people in our time, members of Emerson’s “genius circle” were not atheists, but their focus was on the individual as the spiritual center of the universe.They believed that if we truly know ourselves we will have the knowledge we need to comprehend nature, history, and, ultimately, the cosmos itself. Like Neo-Platonists, Transcendentalists believed that the structure of the universe literally duplicates the structure of the individual, and that nature is a living mystery full of signs.

Our 19th-century Transcendentalists knew full well the suffering and evils of human life, but rather than buy the Original Sin perspective of the Calvinists and Puritans, they believed that if people lived up to their promises—that is, if they attained self-realization—much suffering and evil would disappear.

Concord’s Transcendentalist community ended with the onslaught of the Civil War and the deaths of its charismatic and brilliant stars.

If you’re like me, though, a century and a half later their attempts to live fully human lives still resonate.  I highly recommend you re-visit their writings even if you cannot travel to Concord.  They got a lot of things right.

Main page for The Transcendentalist Trail

(written by guest blogger Bob Sessions)

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