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Transcendental Ideas: Definitions

Vermont Transcendentalism vs. Concord Transcendentalism

Diane Yoder, selection from thesis on James Marsh

It is important to note that American Transcendentalism as it is commonly understood was essentially secular in nature; Emerson was not trying to preserve orthodoxy; he was attempting to transcend orthodoxy. James Marsh, on the other hand, was not trying to secularize orthodoxy; he was attempting to regenerate it, and preserve it.

Concord Transcendentalism was also political in nature, being a socialistic movement; Bronson Alcott's Brook Farm was the embodiment of the Concord Transcendentalist thought that institutions restricted individual development, so Concord Transcendentalism embodied a political statement regarding breaking free from institutions, despite the Brook Farm vegan lifestyle and practice of austerity. Orestes Brownson, a member of the Hedge Club, believed that Protestantism was a failure, and believed that all religions had some good in them, with their point of origination being in humanity's inherent spirituality (Gura 55). Brownson was a supporter of Schleiermacher, and believed that everyone in America would become a philosopher (56).

Emerson, who had stepped down from the ministry in 1832, declared in his essay "Nature," the first published contribution to the discourse in Transcendentalism, that the woods were the "plantation of God," and that "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 eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God" (Emerson 38-39). He interpreted Coleridge's Reason and Understanding in "The Transcendentalist" in 1842, as Materialist and Idealist, Materialists being "founded on experience," and Idealists being founded on consciousness. The Idealist is the thinker of a "higher nature" and Emerson calls Transcendentalism the "Saturnalia or excess of Faith," and says that "Nature is transcendental," (Emerson 239). Throughout Emerson sings the individual, not the church, and that democracy was the great equalizer; the servant was not lower than the master for they both are human beings; thus secularizing Transcendentalism into a social philosophy. Alfred Kazin puts this thought beautifully when he says in God and the American Writer:

How does Emerson know all this? It is because he knows nothing else, and so brings a passion to the subject that is irresistible to people brought up on the language of religion. He is by nature and clerical tradition (eight Emerson forefathers in the pulpit before him) such a religious, naturally devout creature. God has long been with him. He has been so thoroughly formed to do right and be right in the eyes of Heaven that he can now joyously throw aside orthodox Christianity's complex version of human nature to affirm goodness, virtue, in and of itself. The moral sentiment is "the essence of all religion." To know that by intuition is to become aware that the "laws of the soul" are perfect. (41-42)

In this way, the Concord Transcendentalists differed from the Vermont Transcendentalists. The Vermonters were more conservative, and as Lewis S. Feuer adds, "detested Socialism and all its works, and they sent forth distinguished pupils to combat its attractive power. They were perturbed by the social radicalism and pantheist tendency of the men near Boston. The Vermonters had rejected Locke's philosophy because they abhorred both the political and religious freethinking which they believed to be its consequence. Transcendentalism for them was a safeguard for neo-Federalist politics as well as for orthodox Congregationalism" (5-6). Marsh, as previously noted, was disturbed by the lack of religious feeling in Walter Scott's novels, and Wordsworth's poetry. He wanted to unify the Christian public by infusing the life that Coleridge's Christian philosophy promised, because he believed that revolution in religious thought would begin in the religious community and become diffused throughout society once all who read Aids to Reflection awakened to spiritual reflection which "cannot but promote our highest interests as moral and rational beings" so that "the truths of Scripture are a light and a revelation" (ATR lxxiii).

To get an idea regarding how Marsh felt about Emerson's extrapolation of Coleridge's ideas in Aids to Reflection, in a letter from Henry J. Raymond, a former student of Marsh's, on 14 January 1841, Raymond told Marsh that "I find with a certain class of readers-such as read the better part of the light literature-Emersonianism is exceedingly popular. They take up the doctrine quite zealously promulgated-especially by the Unitarians (among the most able of whom is Rev. Mr. Bellows), that our opinions are independent of the will, and that therefore we are not accountable for them. Out of this they make whatever they choose: the most of them not quite content with having no opinions at all. If your leisure will permit, I would be deeply obliged to you if you would write me a letter exposing the grounds of error with the Boston Transcendentalists" (Duffy CAD 246). Marsh responded on March 1, 1841:

I began to fear you were yourself getting a little infected with visions which, in one so young as you indeed, might be tolerated, but which seem to be quite unpardonable in one of mature years. The schemes cherished in New York are very nearly of the same character, I suppose, as those which Mr. Ripley and others are going to commence near Boston on the first of April (an ominous day) [the Brook Farm experiment], and it may be prudent for the New Yorkers to wait the result of their experiment. Those engaged at Boston, are men, so far as I know, of good spirit, and well qualified to realized such schemes as any men can be who are visionary enough to entertain them seriously at all. Ripley says it requires men of Christian spirit, above the groveling selfishness of the world; and the grand error I take to be in the hope which he indulges of finding men in this world sufficiently under the law of pure reason, or even sufficiently raised by divine grace above the selfishness of human nature, to live together on such terms as they propose…the whole of Boston transcendentalism I take to be rather a superficial affair; and there is some force in the remark of a friend of mine that the "Dial" indicates rather than place of the moon than of the sun. They have many of the prettinesses of the German writers, but without their manly logic and strong systemizing tendency. They pretend to no system or unity, but each utters, it seems, the inspiration of the moment, assuming that it all comes from the universal heart, while ten to one it comes only from the stomach of the individual. (Duffy CAD 255-256)

Feuer also notes that the Vermont Transcendentalists "seemed to live aloof both from the antislavery movements of their time and the growing strife between labor and capital. The Boston thinkers were both philosophic spokesmen and active participants in the movement for freeing the slaves. The people and newspapers of Vermont, moreover, were in the forefront of the antislavery cause. None of the names of their representatives, however, appeared among the impressive list of operators of the Underground Railroad. John Wheeler, who held the transcendentalist succession as president of the University of Vermont, indeed opposed the Civil War; he believed in working to make the slave system more benevolent. Wheeler had participated in a society for the religious instruction of the slaves, and had a sympathy for the Southern viewpoint…Wheeler was the only one who had actually spoken to the revered Coleridge; this he had done during a visit to England in 1828. His opposition to the Northern decision to change American society by arms, if necessary, was in keeping with his character as a loyal conservative transcendentalist" (26-27) Vermont transcendentalists valued work; and in preserving the status quo of society; in this regard, they would probably be aligned politically with the Whigs, the conservative branch of the Republican party during their time.

Marsh himself was an opponent of slavery. Torrey quotes Marsh as saying that "I would aim, if I could hope to produce even a little effect, to influence the views of intelligent men, and rouse all those who have the capacity, to something of enthusiasm in promoting the solid and permanent moral interests and the highest happiness of this free and happy country, to wipe away the dark stain of slavery, and become, in the language of Milton, the soberest, wisest, and most Christian people of these latter days" (Torrey 70). Feuer quotes John Wheeler's Discourse at the Funeral of James Marsh, D.D. as saying Marsh's transcendentalism was his forlorn hope that "in Christ Jesus is the only possible power I have of becoming free from the law of sin and death."

Marsh, in his great desire to unify, could not have foreseen that his brand of transcendentalism would divide, with the more liberal Boston/Concord Transcendentalists becoming the more prominent of the two factions. As superficial as Marsh saw the Concord/Boston transcendentalists, one of his great aims was realized however accidentally; American literature was infused with a spiritual component that lauded language as a force inciting religious affection, particularly for those who read Emerson.

The tension between the base longing for material wealth (roundly denounced by Emerson and Thoreau), and the ideal of a spiritual quest is still a fundamental debate at the foundation of our culture today in this country between political conservatives and liberals. The argument is still a religious one, with American Republicans wishing to create a Christian nation based upon the Bible as the inerrant word of God, the inerrancy of Scripture being something that Coleridge would not necessarily have agreed with; in Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit Coleridge argues that "every sentence found in a canonical Book, rightly interpreted, contains the dictum of an infallible Mind; but what the right interpretation is-or whether the very words now extant are corrupt or genuine-must be determined by the industry and understanding of fallible, and alas! More or less prejudiced theologians" (24). The liberals, like Orestes Browning and the Concord Transcendentalists, espouse the tenet that all religions have some good about them, and in the Establishment Clause of our Constitution, that belief is realized in the separation of church and state.

In lauding language as a force to elicit religious affections, we find the poet Whitman, who considered himself to be the poet-priest of America, marching through the streets of Manhattan, lauding individuality and unity in his lines in which he identifies with everyone and everything; humanity and Nature. Marsh's thought, and introduction of Coleridge's Aids to Reflection touched off a Light of a different kind amongst the Concord Transcendentalists, who embraced reflection as a spiritual pursuit to the point that they became God in their own eyes; their idealism shines through even to today, and even though only two voices are heard in universities, those of Emerson and Thoreau, the spirit of Coleridge's and Marsh's Christian philosophy still lives, however vaguely, in their literature. Emerson, and the Concord Transcendentalists, however misguided Marsh may have thought them, shared with Marsh a love for religion, literature, language, the sacred, and truth, and united all these aspects in the literature they produced:

For the Universe has three children, born at one time, which reappear under different names in every system of thought, whether they be called cause, operation and effect; or, more poetically, Jove, Pluto, Neptune, or, theologically, the Father, the Spirit and the Son; but which we will call here the Knower, the Doer and the Sayer. These stand respectively for the love of truth, for the love of good, and for the love of beauty. These three are equal. Each is that which he is, essentially, so that he cannot be surmounted or analyzed, and each of these three has the power of the others latent in him and his own, patent…No wonder then, if these waters be so deep that we hover over them with a religious regard. The beauty of the fable proves the importance of the sense; to the poet and to all others; or if you please, every man is so far a poet as to be susceptible of these enchantments of nature; for all men have the thoughts whereof the universe is the celebration…for it is dislocation and detachment from the life of God that makes things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches things to nature and the Whole…The religions of the world are the ejaculations of a few imaginative men. But the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze. ("The Poet", 259-279)

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