The Character of American Transcendentalism

The individual spirit is instrumental in creating a world power. This feeling of individuality encourages the country’s residents to be content in being a citizen. Since the beginning of America, individuals have made up a society that prides itself on the unique diversity of its people. The transcendentalism movement gave Americans a sense of self, and added to the American tradition of individualism. Although the movement had many varied and intellectual minds expanding it, most of them shared a similar basic philosophy. This philosophy has affected the average American citizen and the whole of American society since, through its ideals of reason, personal spirit and intuition, and a rejection of established institutions.

Transcendentalism finds its predecessors in Europe, not long before the movement began. Romanticism was in the forefront in the early 1800s, as painters, philosophers, and writers began to leave behind the Age of Reason, a time of harsh moral standards, for a more spirited era. In Germany, Immanuel Kant began a new style of philosophy and intuition, defining reason in two parts: theoretical and practical. Practical reason decides what things are as the individual mind perceives them. Theoretical reason went beyond that and called upon the mind to think of things as they should be. John Locke added to Kant’s ideals with his skepticism of the accepted process of reason and thought, which he felt was so clouded by society’s predetermined structure for reason that it became useless. With so many different and extreme perspectives, the single person’s opinion can become lost among a sea of voices, and Locke proclaimed that being influenced by such a cloudy majority of opinion without question is irrational. But transcendentalists also disagreed with certain facets of Locke’s philosophy. Locke believed that every idea must first be witnessed by the senses before being internalized and analyzed by the mind. Kant disagreed, saying that “intuitions of the mind” could bring about thoughts and ideas without using the senses first. Transcendentalists believed that one’s perception of the world was only a reflection of one’s spirit. Taking advantage of expanding communication technology, intellectuals began to read pieces of Eastern thought, such as Indian and Chinese religious scripture. With these diverse influences, a new group of intellectuals emerged emphasizing the individual’s search for truth, all the while rejecting society’s current social codes.

After the rigid morals of the Puritans, Quakers, and other devoutly religious institutions, America was prepared for a more spiritual and introspective philosophy. But while the Romantics stressed pure spiritual learning and exploration, the Transcendentalists broke off in a different direction and included independent reason with the spiritual learning and exploration, taking elements from both the Age of Reason and Romanticism. Transcendentalism had a pure American twist to it, thanks in part to Ralph Waldo Emerson. America has always prided itself in the individual’s involvement in one of the first democracies, and stresses the “American Dream”, where a single person can do whatever they wish if they put their mind to it. Emerson emphasized the individual and the great potential of its mind. In his essaySelf-Reliance”, the first paragraph criticizes society’s honor of “genius works”, and claims that genius is believing “…your own thought, [believing] that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” Emerson redefines genius as just believing in one’s own convictions and ideas. One’s own thoughts are complex, unique, and unconventional, but must also be communicated to others. If one believes that everyone else agrees with him, and talks to others about his ideas, he will find someone that disagrees, prompting an enlightening exchange of thought. Every person must have a little self-confidence as well, in order to recognize unique thoughts as profound. Emerson also tells us that “a man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre firmament of bards and sages.” A man must identify and expand on his unique ideas, and not dismiss them just for the fact that they are his own. Also, one cannot be influenced greatly by “bards and sages” (society) without questioning it, especially if one wishes to achieve greatness. Emerson realizes that the greatest thinkers, “…Moses, Plato and Milton,…set at naught books and traditions…”. These men ignored the current ideas and beliefs because they either realized that these ideals were not their own or unique, or that the accepted beliefs were incorrect. They decided to think for themselves and find a set of beliefs they could call their own.

A main part of American transcendentalism was questioning or rejecting set beliefs, allowing one to search for their own beliefs without the overwhelming influence of others. As transcendentalism impacted the American individual, spiritual and religious questions began to rise. The current religious churches were corrupt and seemed to be blocking the individual’s connection with God in the transcendentalists eyes, prompting some to join and support the Unitarian church. But many transcendentalists believed that a personal connection with God was all that was necessary, and that the bureaucracy of the church was preventing that. Since the world is God’s creation, and is still unaltered in some parts by human existence, nature became a constant focus of the transcendentalists. Henry David Thoreau lived in the Walden woods for four years while writing and reflecting on various topics. Thoreau “…went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts to life…”. Although not exclusively immersed in nature (Thoreau dined often at Emerson’s local tavern), Thoreau’s many writings coming from his time at Walden pond opened the literary world to nature through new eyes, and gave a different perspective to the understanding of nature.

Henry David Thoreau also stressed the individual’s call to be unified as one with the natural world. Although individualism was a very important part of transcendentalism, unification with nature was a way to get away from the “hurry and waste of life”, as Thoreau put it. The complications of work, connections to materialism, and other trivialities of the consumer driven society did not and does not allow anybody to expand their mind in search for “Absolute Truth”, and distracts the person from using personal intuition to reach the ultimate goal of absolute goodness. In the average, every-day life, Thoreau observed a life “frittered away by detail.” By going to the woods and living simply, details became meaningless, and one is able to reflect introspectively in the simplest form. After four years, Thoreau “left the woods for as good a reason as [he] went there.” He had lived within himself with only nature as a companion for awhile, and had realized many things about himself and society. He was now ready to express his new ideas and expand on them with others, using his writings as reference and a means of expression.

Poetry was a very prominent vehicle for transcendentalism. Walt Whitman, with his unconventional style (no rhyme, sometimes no meter), strayed from the normal poetry of the time. Whitman captured the essence of America in his writings, reflecting it as a jumble of individuals rather than a single, cold, and robotic mind. Whitman “hear[s] America singing, the varied carols [he] hear[s]” are those of workers. The upper-class of the time might never have thought of these blue-collar workers, the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, of having independent thought. Adding to Emerson’s declaration that every man is a genius in his own right, it’s obvious that even the seemingly least important janitor can have a “song”, or unique individuality. Each person sings “what belongs to him or her and to none else, Singing with open mouths their strong and melodious songs.” Whitman sees people expressing their ideas and beliefs. Reading a stunning poem such as “I Hear America Singing” makes others see America’s song as well, all the while encouraging more people to realize their own genius and express it to the world.

Transcendentalists established the idea of individualism and the individual, also instilling it within American culture. But the transcendentalists also worked on a broader span to touch as many people as possible and create change in a society that was not fully allowing thought to take place. Walt Whitman “sits and looks out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all the oppression and shame” in “I Sit and Look Out.” He sees injustices in the world, and also calls for action by anyone reading his poem. After all his descriptions of “oppression and shame,” he “see[s], hear[s], and [is] silent”. Although the poem is directed at himself (Whitman uses “I” as the subject), one should realize that most people see and hear wrong in the world and do nothing, too caught up in work or the details of their own life. Many poems and essays that would affect the everyday person appeared in Henry David Thoreau’s The Dial, to which most transcendentalists contributed at one time or another. Thoreau also wrote the widely read “Civil Disobedience”, which is still used today by activists. In response to being jailed for not paying a war tax, Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” to express his grievances over the current government and its actions. Thoreau points out many reasons for resisting an unjust government, and believes that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.” One who disagrees morally with the immoral government will eventually be jailed for their actions in the name of morality. Thoreau knows that this government is hindering his ability to live as he would wish to, not paying these unjust taxes, and the only way to change the government’s ways is to refuse to follow them. There is no reason to follow laws that you are morally opposed to, because “if a plant cannot live according to its nature; it dies; and so a man.” This outcry for making change reforms society for the sake of preserving the individual.

The transcendentalists brought about a whole new set of ideals in America. Nationally, Americans realized they had the freedom to think for themselves and be individuals. This would also lead to a sense of jingoism in some, and an overall feeling of national pride would lead to the “people’s government” violating the people’s rights. The transcendentalists also ran one of the first experiments in utopian communistic living, Brook Farm. Started by George Ripley, a leader of the Transcendental Club, editor of The Dial, and a former Unitarian minister, Brook Farm combined the minds of the thinker and worker. Mostly intellectuals participated, and the visitors included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Theodore Parker, and Orestes A. Brownson. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles A. Dana were among the original shareholders. At Brook Farm, these thinkers worked together to form a cooperative living atmosphere, helping each other while expanding one another’s minds as well.

Transcendentalists have inspired many to create reform. The Beat movement of the 1950s, also dominated by literary and poetic intellectuals, expressed their alienation from society and its moral codes through writings and music. The beatniks, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, focused on the release of the human mind and spirit. Their poetry also had much in common with Walt Whitman, as the unconventional style (frequently laced with obscenities) exposed their rejection of the norm.

The beatniks were not active in their political convitctions, and in that instance they differed from the transcendentalists. Also stemming from the transcendentalists through the beatniks were the hippies of the '60s, with their countercultural philosophy of stepping out of the rat race in favor of peace and love. In opposition to the Vietnam war, they staged protests and various other demonstrations, many using strategies of civil disobedience. Many of their grievances with the U.S, involvement can be connected with Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”. Many of his ideals could be applied to their cry for the U.S. to stop intervention in Vietnam, and allow the Vietnamese to live their own lives. “Civil Disobedience”, both the practice and the essay, has been used countless times by many leaders in different countries as a platform for change. Non-violent protest against a violent government exposes to the world injustice, as Mahatma Ghandi used in protest of the British rule of India. The Civil Rights movement involved civil disobedience on many scales: from a national event of marching on Washington D.C., to black students at lunch counters refusing to leave in various towns across the country. Anti-apartheid activists in Africa, led by Nelson Mandela, also called upon civil disobedience for their cause. A widely publicized massacre of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 protesting communism was an example of civil disobedience and its leverage when used in the media. Civil disobedience is an invaluable tool in creating social change.

The transcendentalists were the first real, full-fledged American movement after the revolutionary war. Their ideas of freeing the individual spirit, using reason to find Absolute Truth, and rejecting a materialistic and corrupted society gave American citizens a sense of self. Transcendentalists affected the world through American’s new sense of pride, but also showed Americans that they were not using their minds to their full extent. Citizens now had a voice, through civil disobedience and the rejection of established institutions. But they were also being advised to think for themselves and not get caught up in a monotone, materialistic society. The American transcendentalist movement created an identity for citizens throughout the nation, giving them the inspiration to live as individuals and use their minds to the fullest extent.

Bibliography Overview of Kant’s Philosophy.

Brulatour, Meg. What Is American Transcendentalism?

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance”.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Practical Reason.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden”. As an excerpt in textbook “The Language of Literature”.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience”. As an excerpt in the textbook “The Language of Literature”.

Whitman, Walt. “I Sit and Look Out”, “I Hear America Singing”. As an execerpt in textbook “The Language of Literature”.

“American Transcendentalism”.