Ideas and Thought: Definitions
"The Transcendentalism of New England"
The American mind is intensely practical. Its forte lies in the direction of mechanical invention and the manipulation of the material. It fabricates knives and forks, sewing machines, steam ploughs--also institutions. Its achievements are great in the records of the Patent Office. In the annals of commerce it holds a prominent place. As a last invention, it has just given the phonograph to the world. It is said that a piece of iron worth 75 cents can be converted into table cutlery worth $180, into watch springs worth $2,000, and into hair springs worth $4,000. In effecting such transformations as these the American genius is conspicuous. Given a raw material of indefinite possibilities, such as India rubber or gutta-percha, and before many months go round it is found as: an article of convenience on the breakfast table; it is sewn as buttons on our coats; it contributes to the comfort of the traveler in the railway carriage; of the invalid on the sick-bed; of the wounded on the battle field. Inheriting the Roman capacity for organization, the American mind, also, manages corners in Wall street; institutes gigantic undertakings in the West; it invents express systems and mercantile agencies, and its great experiment of national self-government by the people and for the people, it is helping to show the world how to unite liberty with law in administering the affairs of nations.
Thus distinguished in the line of practical interest, the American mind is comparatively weak in the region of ideas. Without under-valuing culture, it has scarcely produced one first-rate thinker. That meditativeness of mind and patient, plodding study, which have produced such results in Germany, seem scarcely in accordance with its genius. On the Mount Blancs or Mount Hookers of spiritual contemplation, the air is rather thin for its robust organization. Engaged so much with the measurable and the ponderable, and developing the material resources of the country, its interest is not great in that which cannot be seen and handled. The sensible, rather than the rational, horizon bounds its vision. Even in education, as Emerson says, the aim is less culture than equipment, less development of faculty than the furnishment of the individual for some special work in life.
And yet, some forty years ago, there uprose in New England about the most remarkable manifestation of Idealism that modern history can show. Into this region Transcendentalism imported its bit of Oriental sky, and called men to admire the constellations it contained. And the peculiarity of this movement lay in the fact that, instead of offering ingenuities of speculation addressed to the few, it was a powerful practical influence, operating on the minds of the many. Its auroral lights of splendid promise awoke something of enthusiasm, especially among the young. It exercised a powerful moral influence, calling to manliness and high aims, and to its call many responded. It colored the religion of the day; to many it was in itself a religion.
Before attempting to describe the characteristics of this Transcendentalism, it may be well for us to take a glance at circumstances and influences tending to its production. It is said that when a fire occurs out in the forest the winds immediately carry in abundant germs of life, and cover the earth with vegetation till then partly unknown in the district. And among the causes of Transcendentalism, some may be compared with the burning of the forest, some with the incoming germs of life; some are the remoter occasions, preparing the way; others may more properly be denominated causes. Among the former we would give a prominent place to the following:
The decadence of the Puritan spirit. The stern Calvinism of New England, with its gloomy views of life and its severe intolerance, had in a great measure passed away, or experienced changes that amounted almost to a transformation. The severity was toned down; the knobs and angularities rubbed off. The moral earnestness still remained--the conception that righteousness is highest of all things--but it had largely gone over and become Unitarianism. The rigid views of parental authority, with which Puritanism was identified, disappeared entirely, and a greater place was given to sunshine, joy and liberty. Thus the shadows were lifted, and as Puritanism lost ground and no longer solved to the public satisfaction the great problems of life, a vacant place was made which Transcendentalism aimed to fill. A new religious philosophy seemed to be wanting, and this philosophy the new movement aimed to supply.
A second cause ministering at least negatively to Transcendentalism was the proven insufficiency of the old sensational philosophy. This philosophy, whose great apostles in England were Locke and Hartley, held the place of honor throughout the whole eighteenth century, and did more to explain the characteristics of that century--its superficiality, its scepticism, its materialism, its barrenness--than any other influence whatsoever. Proceeding on the principle that all knowledge comes through sensation, it proved inadequate to the treatment of the deeper questions, as the will, emotion, conscience, the religious nature; and in its attempts at their explanation it simply degraded or denied that which it undertook to explain. Especially when it spoke of conscience, and tried to account for it as an elaboration from experiences of pleasure and pain; when it went beyond the question, "What is the right?" to the further question, "Why should its mandates be obeyed?" it betrayed unmistakable incompetency by appealing to mere selfish considerations. This philosophy has always gone, more or less distinctly, in the direction of materialism and low aims; of selfishness in morals and scepticism in religion. As summed up in its worst representatives, it boldly taught that the aim of life is happiness, and that happiness is to be largely identified with mere physical enjoyment. And when the "Moral Philosophy" of Paley, with its well-known definition of virtue--"Virtue is the doing good to mankind in obedience to the will of God and for the sake of everlasting happiness"--when this work became an accepted text-book in the great universities of England and received the approbation of high-church dignitaries, it was time to show that there was something higher than any balancing of selfish considerations; that, in fact, it is only when selfish considerations are trampled on that true virtue can be said to begin. As early as 1829 Emerson says, speaking of a sermon he was writing, "I am striving to-day to establish the sovereignty and self-existing excellence of the moral law in popular argument, and slay the utility swine." Within certain limitations the philosophy of utility is valuable, but the sensational system, with which it is generally connected, takes the sunlight of the soul and reduces to something poor and paltry the highest sentiments and purposes possible to man. Like Epicureanism, its influence went to paralyze conscience.
In the decline of the Puritan movement, and the decadence of this sensational philosophy, the encumbering forest of the past was cut down, allowing opportunity for new growths, and, among these growths, was Transcendentalism. The period we are referring to--that of the first quarter of this century--was, as Emerson has shown, one of great unrest and agitation. "No one can converse much," says he, "with different classes of society in New England without remarking the progress of revolution. . . . This spirit of the time is felt by every individual with some difference--to each one casting its light upon the objects nearest to his temper and habits of thought; to one coming in the form of special reforms in the state; to another, in modifications of the various callings of men, and the custom of business; to a third, opening a new scope for literature and art; to a fourth, in philosophic insight; to a fifth, in vast solitudes of prayer. In all its movements it is peaceable, and in the very lowest marked with a triumphant success. . . . It has the step of fate, and goes on existing like an oak or a river--because it must." And among the movements urged on by the temper of the times, not the least remarkable or prolific of results was that one we are now attempting to portray.
The temper of mind out of which Transcendentalism directly came is called the mystical-the contemplative--whose organ is intuition, and whose aim is immediate union with God. Sometimes this union is sought through emotion, and then mysticism issues in some form of the pietistic or meditative life--in the ecstasy of the Neoplatonists, and the quietism of Madame Guyon. Then the union is sought through the intellect and the possession of divine ideas, and under the pressure of this tendency, mysticism, produces a philosophy more or less pantheistical, or what is generally called a theosophy. The mystic of both these types, the Indian Yogi, dwelling in contemplation, the Persian Sufi, Saadi, Plotinus, Eckhart, Bohme, Schelling, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, all accept a theory of knowing and being that is substantially of the transcendental type, and without their previous existence probably Transcendentalism could not have been. The dominant conception of all is that of an omnipresent spirit, overflowing into every nook and cranny of creation, and in communication with the mind of man, offering inspiration and the indubitable in truth.
Transcendentalism grew into a movement principally through the writings of three men, Coleridge, Carlyle, and Emerson. Coleridge, the earliest in time, was rather a psychological curiosity. A remarkable poet, a profound or a muddy philosopher, a passionate devotee of high-church orthodoxy, which he held on the ground that it was the perfection of reason, he accomplished much; and yet, considering his genius and the works he was always projecting, he seems to have accomplished nothing. He was always preparing to do something great, but the great thing was never done. With laborious perseverance preparing the apparatus that he might look out for the new star, the new star was never seen. And yet, with his mystic utterances, his occasional flashing of light into the heart of deep questions, he was a powerful influence on the religion of his age. His special signification to us lies in the fact that, importing into England the results of German metaphysics, he taught that men possessed a faculty for apprehending truth superior to the intellect by which they have direct cognizance of supersensible things. This reason, as he names it, lying behind all processes of reasoning, corresponded very much with the intuition of the German philosophers and gives us knowledge of basal, indubitable truth. Thus Coleridge made a departure in the direction of a profounder and more spiritual philosophy, and by his varied utterance of the one principle, and his stimulating conversations and writings, did much to produce the belief that the views he taught contained in themselves great possibilities of reconcilement and, illumination.
Carlyle was a more powerful personality, and in his early enthusiasm, a certain fascination he threw over life, and his wonderful appeals to the manliness in man, became a teacher and an inspiration of no small importance. He did for German literature generally what Coleridge did or attempted for German philosophy, and made its poets and thinkers--Novalis meditating under the starlight, Richter with his exuberant imagination, Herder, Goethe the many-sided--known to England and the English-speaking nations. A preacher, too, on his own account, he taught the nearness of God, the supremacy of the divine laws, religion as a present communion with the Infinite and Eternal. He belongs to the company of the idealist; he emphasizes intuition; oscillating between the two great schools of mysticism, he taught now that self-development, and again that self-renunciation, is the realization of the divine. With withering scorn he branded the materialism of the age, the selfish spirit of the old philosophers and moralities, and in a living religiousness, and a brave assertion of the immutable moral law, recognized the divine meaning of life.
But the leader of the Transcendental movement was undoubtedly Emerson. Born in Boston in 1803, of a good New England stock, his ancestors to the sixth generation being clergymen, Emerson was brought up under good influences intellectually and morally. At Harvard he is remembered as a shy, gentlemanly young man, attentive to classical study, and with some faculty in the way of elocution. Educated for the ministry, and for a term settled in Boston, his qualities in the pulpit were a certain grace of style, a most musical voice and a simple directness of teaching that were charming. Through his college and ministerial days, however, he is learning something that seems to disqualify him for the work of the Christian ministry. He is studying Plate, Plotinus and other representatives of that school; the works of Marcus Antoninus are found often in his pocket during his college course; the good Saadi "who dwells alone" has for him a strange fascination; he delights in the writers of the Elizabethan era-in Swedenborg and Bohme; in the English latitudinarians. After a time he leaves the pulpit and retires to the home of his family in Concord; and there, in the companionship of books, enjoying country life, learning of solitude, writing, lecturing, he spent his life. Whether his idealism came from natural proclivity or from the influence of books, or both, it were not, perhaps, easy to say. Vaughan, in his "Hours with the Mystics," says of mysticism that it has no genealogy; instead of being transmitted by teaching, it grows spontaneously in a certain temperament of mind. Be this as it may, Emerson leaves behind him considerably the religion in which he was educated, and among the contemplatists of the world, the theosophists, the trismegisti, the illuminati, he finds his religious home.
Transcendentalism as a visible movement began in 1836, with the publication in America of Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus." In this volume Emerson prefixed a recommendatory notice, in which he says that "the philosophy and the purity of moral sentiment which inspires the work will find their way to the heart of every lover of virtue." Previous to this time, no doubt, the new philosophy found individual supporters here and there. Dr. Channing went deeper than experience for the foundation of his faith, and believed in real communion, with a present God. Dr. Hedge and President Walker, of Harvard, found avenues to truth not recognized in old systems, and accepting the revelations thus obtained, went on their way rejoicing. But only in 1836 did Transcendentalism attain to the dignity of a movement. Then it first came to attract much attention and to dictate a characteristic method of thinking and speaking. Then men began to talk Carlyle; they were at home in the infinities and eternities; a new valuation, in theory at least, was placed on silence; there was a prevailing disposition to use plain language, and call a spade a spade. In the universities the spasmodic English of the students disturbed the equanimity of the professors of rhetoric. Among the young generally a conviction began to grow that a new era was coming on. C. T. Congdon says of the movement that, while expressing itself in eccentricities and absurdities of various kinds, it amounted to a kind of hobbledehoy aspiration after manliness. When Emerson then came out of his seclusion in Concord to assume command of the movement it had made considerable progress. Some, no doubt, laughed; some denounced. John Quincy Adams said that the transcendental message simply amounted to this--that the old doctrines are superannuated and worn out, and that the revelations to supersede them are coming. But the young generally responded with enthusiasm. J. R. Lowell says that the course of lectures delivered by Emerson in the Masonic Hall in Boston, in 1836, constituted an era in the life of many a young man. The Harvard students came in almost in a body to hear the new teacher, and went home, under the starlight, on foot. After hearing one of these lectures Dr. Channing's daughter, Mary, exclaimed: "After hearing Mr. Emerson I think I can sin no more." The elevation of the tone and the novelty of the teaching, and the trumpet-call uttered to a noble life, even the enigmatic language that awakened curiosity, translated many into a new region, in which they found much to wonder at and much to inspire. J. F. Clark says two things came out, stimulating in the teaching--self-reliance and God-reliance.
Before glancing at the future and the fortunes of Transcendentalism, we may look closer at it to see what it means. Not a very easy task. Some things admit of a ready definition. They are a simple substance, or an easily identified fact. Others comprehend in their totality a miscellaneous variety of attributes, or constituents, and can only be defined by description. Any one could define a spade; but could he with the same facility tell the essential element in civilization? And as many-sided as civilization, as capable of reflecting a different look from a variety of angles, is Transcendentalism. Goethe was once asked what was the central idea in "Faust," and he replied, "It has none; and then he added: "I am of opinion that the more incommensurable and incomprehensible to the understanding a poetical production is, the better it is." And a certain incommensurableness belongs to Transcendentalism. What Emerson said of the mountain may be said of it-- instead of being one thing it is a hundred things, according to the position and temperament of the observer. In virtue of this multifariousness, the first Transcendentalists were satirically called the "Like-minded"; and when Emerson defines the new philosophy, he is taken to task by Frothingham, the historian of Transcendentalism, and the definition given by Frothingham in its turn is disputed by Dr. Osgood, his critic, in the "International Review." Yet the mountain is still a particular thing, independent of the observer, and can definitely be measured and mapped out. So is the phenomenon we are now endeavoring to describe.
As to the name "Transcendentalism," how it came to be applied to the New England idealism no one knows. At any rate, in a certain sense it is appropriate, though in some ways it is unfortunate. The word had a certain meaning in the philosophy of the Middle Ages, describing classes of things not comprehended in the categories of Aristotle, yet it is not from the Middle Ages, but from the philosophy of Kant, in which is described one department, that it obtained its signification and use as a recognized English word. With Kant the transcendental department concerned itself with those fundamental beliefs and ideas that are independent of observation, and come to us guaranteed by the very constitution of the human mind. And the mingled appropriateness, and yet unfortunateness, of the term lies in the fact that it carries with it a fine flavor of German metaphysics, and suggests a traveling out into regions bounding at least on the mystical and unintelligible.
The definition of Emerson, referred to as criticised by Frothingham, is the following: "This mode of thinking (the ideal), falling on Roman times, made stoic philosophers; falling on despotic times, made Catoes and Brutuses; falling on superstitious times, made prophets and apostles; on popish times, made Protestants and ascetic monks preachers of faith against preachers of works; on prelatic times, made Puritans and Quakers, and falling on Unitarian and commercial times, made the peculiar shades of idealism that we know." This description, unsatisfactory, perhaps, because not descending sufficiently to particulars, brings forward two characteristics we believe important in Transcendentalism--the essential element, idealism; the specific difference, an idealism suited to practical, commercial and reformatory times. To each of these we call attention.
This idealism, however varied in form, is well known in essential features. It recognizes in the human mind a certain capacity of apprehending directly supersensible truth, and of communicating directly with the spiritual world. Instead of the roundabout and precarious method of observation, it takes the high a priori road to truth presented by intuition. Whilst materialism would depress everything into matter, and in the action of the moral sense see only a disturbance in the molecular constituents of the brain, it believes only in spirit and in the spiritual aspects of things. Conscience is to it no elaboration from experience, but a light kindled by the spirit of God, and in its announcements it gives revelations from the empyrean. The soul is the crown lily, the edelweisse of creation; it is a microcosm, containing a small universe in itself, not without its constellations, and in communication with the oversoul it finds its life. Eternity, instead of being looked forward to in hope, is a present reality; we live in the centre of eternity now. And, throughout, the tendency of idealism is in the direction of aspiration and enthusiasm; it believes in mystery and miracle; it sees in all things a contribution to the solution of the great problems of existence; it speaks in the superlative degree. Private fancy it may mistake for revelation, and many an interest unquestionably important it may despise, yet its aim and spirit are high. It proclaims the value of ideas; it throws a splendor over duty; it announces the categorical imperative; it awakens an enthusiasm for the beautiful and true and good, identifying all these with God.
This, we reckon, is Transcendentalism generally; the specific difference lies in the fact that the idealism it comprehends is not Oriental, taking the soul away into solitudes of profitless contemplation; not sentimental, finding in emotion the point of union with God; nor speculative in any sense, but essentially practical and reformatory. It may go into solitude and deal with the deepest questions that could occupy the mind, but the aim is to confer additional grace and nobleness on life. George Gilfillan says, rather funnily, of Emerson that he prefers "to stray to and fro along the crooked serpent of eternity, but his business at the same time was very intelligibly with the things of time. The "news he brought from the Empyrean" bore on the meaning of life, and had a lesson for the common weekday world. As Emerson himself says in one of his most beautiful poems:
Nay, it is more than practical--it is a stern reaction against prevailing maxims and ways, against materialism, formalism and utilitarianism in its lower aspects, and therefore reformatory. With almost a Calvin preference for dark shades, Emerson pictures the comprehensive, almost total, depravity of existing manners and institutions. Men were immersed in sense; accumulating the materials of life, they forgot to live; they garnished the tombs of the fathers and neglected the living calls of to-day. "'Tis the day of chattel, web to weave and corn to grind, things are in the saddle, and ride mankind." As in the days of Sir Waiter Raleigh, the soul's errand to man was one not of compliment, but of condemnation.
And as an antidote to this comprehensiveness of evil, what is presented? Not the favorite nostrums of religion--revivalistic enthusiasm, or faith,or prayer--but culture generally, the revelations that come to the soul from the present spirit of God, and especially solitude and a return to the simplicity of arcadian life. An exaggerated importance is attached to the influence of scenery. "All my hurts," as Emerson says,
Fresh air and simple living and innocent surroundings were to bring round again the era when angels were morning and evening visitors, and the gods communed familiarly with men. Alcott seemed to think that the devil might be exorcised by well-regulated diet. Altogether, it was on the principle of lessening the denominator rather than increasing the numerator that the contented, ideal life was to be sought. But, through all exaggerations of unimportant moral remedies, there ran a high spirit and purpose, and many persuasive invitations to the nobler life.
The special form which Transcendentalism took is largely due to Emerson. That epigrammatic brilliancy, the presentation of truth in compact parcels containing essences and extracts, the serene equipoise in the region of ideas, the retreat from the artificiality of towns, the contempt of argument, the association of things remote by the filmiest of relations, and the wondrous elevation of tone, all these are his. That God speaks inwardly to the soul, and in that gives stimulus, strength and peace, is the essential transcendental teaching; but in many of the messages delivered, the optimism that scarcely sees evil anywhere, the conception that the meaning of any one thing contains the meaning of all creation, his circular philosophy, the union of high vision with devotion to practical realities, we have contributions from Emerson. Much of the substance, and the form generally, came from him.
Quite a breeze has lately risen on the subject of the imputed pantheism of Transcendentalism. Mr. Alcott has gone about announcing to orthodox coteries, and elsewhere, that he was authorized to say that Emerson is a theist and a Christian theist, and "if you leave out the word Christian you leave out everything." The inference generally drawn from this has been that the Sage of Concord is another example of the interesting convert, and from avowed pantheism he has passed on to avowed theism. This assumption has, however, been denied on authority by a member of Mr. Emerson's family, and by Mr. Alcott himself, in a letter to the present writer, and we only glance at the subject for the purpose of signalizing what we consider a defect and indeed a contradiction in the ethical teaching of Transcendentalism. Pantheism teaches that there is one agent in all creation--in the movement of the star, in the blowing of a flower, in every noble and every depraved act of man. It abolishes human responsibility when logically carried out. Whatever is" to it "is right." And tried by this standard how does Transcendentalism appear? Is it pantheistic? Certainly not, in general terms. Emerson again and again lays the emphasis on human freedom and consequent responsibility, and in the alliance existing between virtue and nature he found almost everything around--winter and summer, the stars, the river, the wood--teaching the ten commandments. He calls the liberation of the will from certain sheaths and clogs the very end and aim of the world." yet in reading the works of Emerson we stumble with some dismay upon such sayings as these: "And thus, O circular philosopher, I hear some reader exclaim, you have arrived at a fine pyrrhonism, at an equivalency and indifference of all actions, and would fain teach if we are true, forsooth, our crimes may be lively stones out of which we shall construct the temple of the true God." To this remonstrance no reply repudiating the imputation it conveyed is given. And in poetry the same ethereal doctrine is taught:
Surely this is remarkable teaching, and not easily reconciled with any decent respect for the commands of the moral. If there is a splendor in the noble life, there is a corresponding degradation in the contrary. Without attempting to explain the paradox, or endeavoring to reconcile what appears contradictory, we Would name as one of the two capital errors of Transcendentalism as a moral system, that it betrays a deficient apprehension Of the sinfulness of sin. Its optimism recognizes no shadows. The "saccharine element" is so universal in nature that it is considered to be equally universal in human life. The doctrine, in fact, so often found connected with mystic religionism, that evil is a mere negation, is accepted, or the doctrine that evil is good in the making and to be characterized at the worst as only an impediment to our progress. The other deficiency of the system lies in its want of sympathy. Developed far away from the world; in the serene heights of contemplation, it scarcely recognized the facts of human suffering and infirmity. Sickness is to it merely an inconvenient fact, to be got rid of as soon as possible; in no sense was it to be considered a moral teacher. Nor are the experiences that draw men to one another in the fellowship of weakness, and thereby soften and humanize, pronounced of any value in the disciplining of human character.
The propagandism of Transcendentalism was carried out by various instrumentalities. Emerson lectured over the country on Reading, and Art and Poetry, and Natural Aristocracy and Society, and kindred subjects. He published three or four series of essays, and "Nature," that wonderful prose poem. The Transcendentalists of Concord and the neighborhood--Alcott, Thoreau, Hawthorne and, not unfrequently, Margaret Fuller--held converse on high subjects every Monday afternoon in Emerson's parlor. The Transcendental Club was instituted, and, meeting in various houses, especially in Boston, discussed Mysticism as an element in Christianity, Pantheism and the American genius. These efforts to promote the new views culminated in a magazine, to which at the suggestion of Alcott, the name "The Dial" was given, and which commenced its career in 1840. Of this publication Margaret Fuller was at first the principal editor, but after a time the responsibility of its supervision fell on Emerson, and its principal contributors were the members of the Transcendental Club. Emerson wrote the introductory article, and sent to it some well-known essays and poems of strange mystic beauty, such as "The Sphynx," "The Problems." [sic] Alcott entered on a congenial field by the publication of a series of what he called "Orphic Sayings." Whether these fragmentary utterances are to be considered commonplaces of thought invested in an enigmatic garb, or paradoxes more or less effectively disguised, or a genuine upspringing of waters from the deep well of truth, may reasonably be questioned. At any rate, they furnished the reader such information as the following: "God is instant but never extant in his works; nature does not contain but is contained by him; she is the memoir of his life." "Action is composition, thought is decomposition." "Opinions are life in foliage, deeds in fruitage; always is the fruitless tree accursed." Theodore Parker published in the "Dial" some of his finest papers, as his essay on Dörner's Christology and the powerful satire called "The Pharisees of Modern Times." W. H. Channing gave expression, in his characteristic enthusiasm for the ideal in life and institutions, in a kind of philosophical romance called "Earnest the Seeker." Among the occasional contributors were James Freeman Clarke; Dr. Hedge, who sent a fine poem called "Questionings;" Thoreau, who earned his first laurels as a poet in these pages, and Ripley, who furnished the monthly review. The most voluminous of all the writers was Margaret Fuller, who contributed discussions and biographies, more remarkable for length than brilliancy. Her most notable paper discussed the question of woman's rights in an article called "The Great Lawsuit-Man versus Man, Woman versus Woman." The paper was afterwards enlarged and published as a volume under the title "Woman in the Nineteenth Century." The poetry of the "Dial" was remarkably good. Some departments of philosophic speculation go downwards in search for foundations; with others the tendency is to soar aloft, and through the kindling of enthusiasm to blossom into poetry. To the latter class belonged Transcendentalism, which stimulates more than it informs. In the "Dial," therefore, we find some remarkable poetry, of rather unusual type, wierd [sic], mystical, full of blue skies and green fields; now and then careless of measure, but full of musical thought, and that thought conveying the poetic aspects of Transcendentalism itself. The principal writers in this department were, in addition to Emerson and Thoreau, C. P. Cranch and William Ellery Channing, nephew of the more famous Dr. W. E. Channing.
One outcome, partly of the hopes kindled by Transcendentalism, and partly of the reformatory enthusiasm of the time, was the curious socialistic experiment of Brook Farm. The age fairly teemed with new ideas and philosophic schemes for the reorganization of society. Robert Owen had been trying his plan for the regeneration of the working classes at New Lanark, Scotland; Saint Simonism, in France, and the plan of Fourier, of superseding the home by the phylanstery, had not yet demonstrated their incapacity for the purposes intended; societies are formed to carry out the principle of non-resistance; Garrison is commencing to thunder against slavery; the temperance question comes forward for discussion, and Rev. John Pierpont is compelled to leave Hollis Street Church, Boston, for what was called his injudicious zeal against the rum-seller. Great expectations were entertained of what phrenology and mesmerism and homoeopathy were about to accomplish. The prevailing idea of the time, in fact, is that by the adoption of certain social panaceas the evils and sins and diseases under which men groan might be effectually encountered and the millennium that enthusiasts are all looking for might be ushered in. And out of this agitation and expectancy, assisted, perhaps, by a certain impetus given by Transcendentalism, the retreat into primal simplicity, attempted in the Brook Farm scheme, was made.
In this experiment Mr. Ripley, a Unitarian minister of Boston, was the moving spirit. Impressed with the vanity of mere preaching, and desirous of attempting something practical, he sold off his library, and organizing a company of chosen spirits, purchased a farm in the neighborhood of Boston. They wished, by conducting the whole work of the farm, to give a new illustration of the dignity of labor, and offer an emphatic protest against the artificiality of modern life. With the new movement some of the Transcendentalists were in full sympathy, notably Alcott, who for twenty years had been trying the moral effect of vegetarianism; but not so Emerson. Whilst recognizing the excellent intentions that led to the experiment, he still held to the idea that all true reform must come from the uprising of the individual. Parker felt the incongruity of the whole proceeding, but, notwithstanding, spent an occasional happy day among the philosophers turned plowmen, and the poets who did not disdain the wash-tub. Hawthorne actually went through the drudgery of the farm for a number of days, and retired with the conviction that if the soul can be buried in money, the soul, also, can be buried in manure. The movement could only have one end. Financially, it ended in disaster; morally, it was a disappointment. After a trial of the new plan of social regeneration for four years, its promoters turned back to the familiar ways of life somewhat saddened, but convinced that the Arcadian methods they had adopted--sowing and reaping--did not necessarily promote the higher life of man.
Transcendentalism as a living movement is largely a thing of the past. It is said of the projectors of the "Dial," forty years ago, that they were all young men; it may be said of the Transcendentalists now that they are all octogenarians. The impulse of the movement has died. If the old bitter antipathies have changed to something of tolerance, the expectations once entertained have proved mostly dreams. The glories of that brilliant morning have faded into the gray lights of common day; and the world goes round on its axis, and day succeeds night, and men sleep and awake, and suffer and do very much as if Transcendentalism never had been. But have no permanent results been left; have no contributions been made to the world's higher wealth, by all that Emerson and Margaret Fuller and Thoreau and Alcott thought and did? We think there have.
Not that at this time Transcendentalism is very much of a power in the field of philosophy. The leading ideas in this department are now the doctrine of evolution as formulated by Darwin; the idea of Spencer that experience deposits results in the texture of the brain, which are transmitted from generation to generation in the form of aptitudes, instincts and intuitions. Whatever the fluctuations in speculation, these principles stand unmoved, and by the light they cast into many dark regions are only increasing in importance. But Transcendentalism furnished no such commanding ideas. If it contained in itself the materials of a philosophy, it was a philosophy never intelligently rendered to the understanding. Brilliant but fragmentary, offering many an individual truth but no concatenated thinking, a series of scattered stars without the firmament that converts them into a whole, it was to a certain extent one-sided, and to the thinker unsatisfactory. Unable, too, in its devotion to ideal methods to discriminate between the fancy of the individual and a general revelation from the deep nature within or behind, it said strange things, and was compromised by the fantastic utterances of its friends. It ran over into exaggerations and extravagances. And at this time any influence it exercises as a philosophic system it exercises through the writings of Emerson, and by the lectures delivered through the short summer course of study instituted by what is called the Concord School of Philosophy. The school, however, is scarcely transcendental. Inaugurated at St. Louis by two or three persons--Lieutenant-Governor Broclaneyer and William T. Harris in particular--who had organized themselves into a club for the study of German metaphysics, it became transferred to the East, and it is now only transcendental because the place where its lectures are delivered is the Orchard House of Concord, and that the great questions of philosophy are treated by it prevailingly from the ideal point of view. Its leaders are Platonists, Hegelians, or mystics, and in its spiritual aim and method it meets Emerson at many points.
But Transcendentalism was par excellence a stimulus, and to some extent a revelation, morally and religiously. It purified the air and amplified the horizon. It invited men to bravery and aspiration; and in some way, not easily explained perhaps, cast auroral lights around life. Speaking of Emerson in the early days of his career as a lecturer, J. R. Lowell says: "There is no man living to whom, as a writer, so many of us feel and thankfully acknowledge so great a debt for ennobling impulses." "It is the sound of the trumpet that the young soul longs for, careless what breath may fill it. Sidney heard it in the battle of Chevy Chase, and we heard it in Emerson. Nor did it blow retreat, but called to us with assurance of victory. If asked what was left--what we carried home? we should not have been careful for an answer. It would have been enough if we had said that something beautiful had passed that way. Or we might have asked, in return, what one brought away from a symphony of Beethoven. Enough that he had set that ferment of wholesome discontent at work in us."
In religion Transcendentalism was more than an inspiration; to a certain extent it transformed leading men to look at essentials, it broadened our sympathy, it gave emphasis to the spiritual aspects. Especially, it dismissed the Divinity of the last century, who was represented as having returned after creation into the remoteness of eternity, and to have been a non-resident, as far as the world is concerned, ever since; and it taught a living God, present in every changing day and season, and in the heart of man, and giving immediate revelations intended for you and me. The nearness of God, the authority of the spiritual laws that went on in their course with the relentlessness of fate, and at the same time with the beneficence of Providence-inspiration, not mechanical or miraculous, but natural as the sunlight, were its themes. Emerson was neither Unitarian nor Trinitarian, exclusively--thanking God for what was good in both. Margaret Fuller says she was cheated out of a Sunday by hearing Mr. A. "He refused to deny mysteries, to deny the second birth, to deny influx, to renounce the sovereign gift of insight, for the safe of what he called a 'rational' exercise of will." This Mr. A., we believe, was a Unitarian, and fifty years ago scarcely a Unitarian minister could be found who did not sympathize in the opinions he held, and at this day there is scarcely a Unitarian minister who has not, in the matter of insight and communion with God, gone over to Margaret Fuller and the Transcendentalists. A present living God, addressing communications to men in this day, is now the theme of all the churches. And if this is so, and if men care less for the formal and more for the spiritual in religion, and in every good and beautiful act recognize something that is well-pleasing to God--if the sympathies of the churches are broadening, and their influence on life less marred with harsh and disfiguring accompaniments--the result is largely due to Transcendentalism and the causes that made Transcendentalism what it was.
Published in the International Review, 13 (October 1882), 381-398. Reprinted in Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism