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Transcendental Ideas: Definitions

Student Definitions

Meg Brulatour, Virginia Commonwealth University

Gertrude Reif Hughes calls Emerson a "vitalist" in Emerson's Demanding Optimism. Thoreau might better appreciate the term; it has a robust ring to it. She quotes The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought as defining vitalism as "a miscellany of beliefs united by the contention that living processes are not to be explained in terms of the material composition and physico-chemical performances of living bodies" (162). This returns to Kant; it seems that to be a transcendentalist, one must first be a vitalist, although critics of transcendentalism would say "miscellany" is a correct if somewhat mild term for its rather fluid tenets. (Charles Dickens said, "I was given to understand that whatever was unintelligible would certainly be Transcendental.") But take "vitalism" one step further: animation is a vital principle in its own right, yes – but if the "material composition," etc., are the symbols of that lively spirit –  then Emerson's vision of transcendentalism is clarified. The universe is one great entity, "composed of Nature and the Soul . . . . Nature is the symbol of the spirit" (Nature).

Transcendentalism earned a reputation as a "collection of miscellany" because such variety of thought is built into the definition. Emerson and Thoreau admonish their audiences to go their own way rather than emulate the authors. Emerson declared he wanted no followers; it would disappoint him if his ideas created hangers-on rather than "independence;" he would then doubt his own theories and fear he was guilty of some "impurity of insight." Discipleship would automatically break two prime tenets of transcendentalism: first, that individualism stems from listening to one's "inner voice;" and that one's life is guided by one's intuition; societal leadership is not necessary nor desirable. However, under that light, many written works fall under the title "transcendentalism"! After all, particularly in modern poetry, the author usually is expressing a very personal point of view, frequently framed in an "unconventional" meter that further expresses his or her meaning.

Ralph Waldo Emerson gave the German philosopher Immanuel Kant the credit for making "Transcendentalism" a familiar term. Contrary to Locke's theory, that before any concept could be intellectualized it must first be experienced by the senses, Kant said there were experiences that could be acquired through "intuitions of the mind;" he referred to the "native spontaneity of the human mind." In his essay, "Nature," Emerson explained how every idea has its source in natural phenomena, and that the attentive person can "see" those ideas in nature. Intuition allowed the transcendentalist to disregard external authority and to rely, instead, on direct experience.

In his essay "The Transcendentalist," Emerson explained transcendentalism is "Idealism as it appears in 1842" and linked it with "the very oldest thoughts" such as Buddhism. Transcendentalism in the 19th Century was more than a trend in American literature. It was a philosophical movement, but it owed its development as much to democracy as to European philosophers. Transcendentalism centered on the divinity of each individual; but this divinity could be self-discovered only if the person had the independence of mind to do so. American thought lent itself to this concept of independence. If one can judge by the voter participation in presidential elections (at least 70% of those registered to vote did so, throughout Emerson's lifetime and up to the turn of the century), Americans certainly thought their individual voices were of value.

Emerson, and others, believed in what he called the Oversoul. (Walt Whitman called it the "float").There is an inner "spark" contained by and connecting all facets of nature, including humankind, which can be discovered not through logical reasoning but only through intuition, the creative insight and interpretation of one's own inner voices. Transcendentalists called for an independence from organized religion; they saw no need for any intercession between God and man. Divinity is self-contained, internalized in every being. Transcendentalism gives credence to the unlimited potential of human ability to connect with both the natural and spiritual world. The chief aim is to become fully aware not only of what our senses record, but also to recognize the ability of our inner voice—our intuition—to wisely and correctly interpret the sensory input.

Transcendentalists were idealistic and optimistic because they believed they could find answers to whatever they were seeking. All they had to do was learn to read, through their intuition, the external symbols of nature and translate them into spiritual facts. A transcendentalist declared there was meaning in everything and that meaning was good, all connected by and parts of a divine plan. Emerson refuted evil by insisting it was not an entity in itself but rather simply the absence of good. If good was allowed, evil dissipated. One ray of light can penetrate darkness. According to the transcendentalists, everyone had the power to "transcend" the seeming confusion and chaos of the world and understand nature's signs. Everything on earth has the divine "spark" within and thus is all part of a whole. This philosophy led to an optimistic emphasis on individualism. One aspect of individualism is the value of the individual over society. To "transcend" society one must first be able to look past and beyond it. One must follow his instincts and not conform to what society dictates. Although society will influence an individual towards conformity, it is important to remain true to one's self and to one's identity. Secondly, individualism includes being self-reliant. In his essay, "Self-Reliance", Emerson urges the reader to "trust thyself."

Anti-transcendentalists rejected this optimistic outlook on humanity and life. They declared such optimism naïve and unrealistic. The anti-transcendentalists reflected a more pessimistic attitude and focused on man's uncertainty and limited potential in the universe. They viewed nature as vast and incomprehensible, a reflection of the struggle between good and evil. The anti-transcendentalist felt humans were depraved and had to struggle for goodness.  Although they thought goodness was attainable for some, they believed in evil as its own entity. They believed sin was an active force; it was not just the absence of good; they really did think, on some level, that the devil existed. The anti-transcendentalists believed in a higher authority and that nature is ultimately the creation and possession of God – and can not be understood by humans.

Anti-transcendentalists feared that people who desired complete individualism would give into the worse angles of man's nature. They viewed transcendentalism as selfish and impractical. Anti-transcendentalists were concerned that without external constraints, such as societal mores, people would be motivated only by their immediate need and desire for sensory gratification. Here, they apparently missed a basic idea of transcendentalism: the call to rise above "animalistic" impulses as one moves from the rational to the spiritual realm.

Lee Gentry, Virginia Commonwealth University

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist":

The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own . . . .
Is Transcendentalism any more than Idealism? Can it offer the human race any profound wisdom and guidance as we live our lives in a world where there seems to be constant need to validate human existence? Is it then enough for a philosophy to encourage instinct and reason and self-reliance, and to profess as its only doctrine that God is of immanent principle in every individual?

Is transcendentalism just another sect, another tributary of a major religion, trying in a unique way to find the light that leads to truth? Are the transcendentalist followers really no different than the Christians and the Jews and Buddhists all who claim their way to be the only way? Possibly, but rather than view the transcendentalists as egotistical men and women rooted in a faith (perhaps to others thwarted in vain) we might consider the side of transcendentalists that allows the encompassing of all religions and does not exclude the religions of the world. Thus transcendentalism, in its broadest sense, has no doctrine of expectations, but believes the spiritual reflection of each person as they move from the rational to the spiritual is the very essence of life. And this is an individual accomplishment.

The word transcend implies a movement toward something. If transcendentalism is considered a religion it is the all-encompassing religion that transcends all other man-made philosophies.  As Thoreau said "Give me one world at time" and we might consider his purpose in these words. Does he mean we are to enjoy this earthy world and not consider what lies ahead or beyond the physical? I think not. Not in the sense that Thoreau would justify ignoring the world around us as a miracle in itself. He certainly made it clear that even in Concord there were plenty of miracles to explore without traveling too far! Yet the transcending of the physical self still applies here in this message-- to live in the physical and live one world at a time. Yet it is in this living we move toward the conscience of the reality we cannot see, and this is part of Thoreau's point.

The nature that reveals (itself) is only half of the mystery of life. If we look to nature as our guide we will discover we are not including the other half of the miracle—the part we don't see—the part that science is merely at the brink of discovering. With this thought in mind we can understand Whitman's point, "A mouse is a miracle enough to stagger quintillions of infidels." In otherwords, the very components of the mouse are almost beyond human comprehension. Likewise, if the mouse is representation of one of the smallest miracles what are we not seeing? This is where  (I think) transcendentalism retains its most power. There is a concealed reality—there is a beginning with no beginning that we, as humans cannot see—the mystery among mysteries.  It is in embracing the smallest of miracles on a daily basis—such as the leaves on a tree and the flower only half bloomed, that we begin to understand the reality we experience is relative to our thought process. To transcend our 'thinking reality' we begin to transcend human limitation and move toward divine perfection. (For Emerson the self and self-reliance is the way to knowing the source of all creation, divine perfection or the Over-soul.)

I believe there is no limit to one's practicing transcendentalism. We know from our studies the most brilliant of minds think differently—and are not only allowed to, but encouraged to do so. That which is progressive is transcendental.  Thus it is a possibility that the creed of Transcendentalism would state that the only limitation in finding God is in not finding oneself.

Bryan Hileman, Virginia Commonwealth University

Transcendentalism is not a metaphysical system. It is rather a corpus of ideas, some metaphysical, some ethical, originally held by a circle of friends and acquaintances in New England during the early to middle 19th century. These ideas were a combination of Neo-Platonism, Swedenbourgian mysticism, Romanticism, German Idealistic philosophy, reaction against Empiricism a la Hume, New England Puritanism and a dash of personal genius.  Transcendentalism was both a highly personal, idiosyncratic creation of Emerson and others and an ambient cloud which first materialized over Massachusetts in the 1830's. For Emerson, transcendentalism was "Idealism for 1842." If I may add, it was Idealism for Emerson in 1842.

 So what were these beliefs? At its base, transcendentalism is certainly on the idealistic side of the great divide between idealism and realism. There is an ideal world that coexists with the real world, a world of noumena and a world of phenomena.  Nature parallels the individual mind. The natural, sensual world of phenomena is a representation by which we may better comprehend the world of noumena. God is energy, a force, not a particular separate being. God breathes through nature and man attempts to open himself up to this influx. Nothing is static. The greatest goal is to achieve the transcendental moment, the moment when one is open to the to and fro flow of the influx. Though not essentially a religion, transcendentalism is fraught with theological consequences. A case could be made for transcendentalism as a form of secular religion, as opposed to revealed religion. Man is at the center of a fundamentally moral universe.

Ethically the central concept is self-reliance. One's own soul is capable of holding the universe; it follows that one need be true to oneself, or rather the God in oneself.; Emerson strongly believed in a fundamental morality. The sensual side of man is regarded as mostly evil in that it distracts man from higher pursuits.  Strong emotion of the baser varieties is discouraged. There is also a tendency towards hero worship, the holding up of a few great men as exemplars for the great mass of men.

Shannon Riley, Virginia Commonwealth University

The Latin translation of Transcendentalism is "overpassing" and a good place to start to understand the basic tenets shared by its adherents. I think that the term transcendentalism means different things to different individuals, which allows us to fully understand Thoreau when he once wrote, "I should have told them at once that I was a Transcendentalist-- That would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations" and also Emerson when he wrote "to be great is to be misunderstood."

Transcendentalism embodied the adventurous spirit of a young United States, encouraging others to eschew material things and not be fettered by ideas of the past. Individual intuition is the highest source of knowledge. Through this spirit it encouraged those people to cherish individualism over established political and social order. It stressed the importance of harmony with nature—God was imminent in our natural surroundings, there's a goodness that's inherent in all mankind. Emerson said: "Standing on the bare ground,--my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulating through me; I am part or parcel of God" (Nature). One of the most important aspects of the movement was the publication of The Dial, which allowed a new crop of inspired and talented writers to establish themselves in American history.

Transcendentalism is an idealism that encompasses a diverse and sometimes confusing set of beliefs regarding man's role in nature and the universe. Loosely, the doctrine refers to any view which holds that there's an aspect to reality that is higher than (or transcends) our everyday life and world. Emerson was the most notable Transcendentalist-- a great thinker with deep insight, and over time his ideas evolved and grew; however, he was always seeking "To what end is nature?" Transcendentalists eschewed materialism, and advocated a philosophy of self-reliance and self-fulfillment. Living in accordance with nature and a perpetual striving toward cultivation of character were other common attitudes. However, like most philosophies, not all transcendentalists strictly adhered to basis premises, which makes transcendentalism a thought provoking and challenging belief.

Transcendentalism had a very large impact on American literature. Emerson's ideas published in "Essays" (1841) probably did the most to ensure his lasting reputation. And it has been said that without Emerson's endorsements, Thoreau wouldn't have been anywhere near as well known as he is today. Modern day writers are still moved and inspired by Emerson's writings…"Emerson's persisting influence upon twentieth century American writers is evident in astonishing permutations, on writers diverse as Theodore Dreiser, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, his namesake Ralph Waldo Ellison, and A. R. Ammons." (Baym, 317).

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