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In this paper I am going to expound the subject of the American Transcendentalism movement, and how it spread from religion and education to literature, philosophy and social reforms. I will do this through information from contemporary works and other studies, from students and researchers, which have been written on the subject. Even though Transcendentalism’s ambivalence about any communal effort that would compromise individual integrity prevented it from creating lasting institutions. The historical movement was limited in time from the mid 1830’s to the late 1840’s, and because of the urge to reintegrate spirit and matter, its desire to turn ideas into concrete action developed a momentum of its own, spreading from the spheres of religion and education to literature, philosophy, and social reform (Bickman).
Transcendentalism is an American literary, political, and philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century, centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson. Transcendentalism comes from the word transcend, which means to go beyond (Ertresvaag). Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882, was an American poet and philosopher. After studies at Harvard and a few years as a teacher, he became a priest in a Unitarian congregation in Boston. His wife died in 1831 after a year of marriage, and the following year he renounced the priest’s vocation because of disagreement about the communion sacrament. These two crises helped to lay the foundation for his philosophical views on life (Myerson, 2000). The Puritan legacy, Plato, Neo-Platonism, Eastern religions and Swedenborg had all influence on Emerson’s Transcendentalism, which had his first and complete expression in the book Nature, 1836. His philosophy was never a fully complete system, but took its starting point view where God and the creature was “one”. Before I go deeper into the transcendentalist movement I am going to explain where it all started.
The romanticism began in Germany and had a rapid development that spread quickly. It first spread to England and France, and reached America in 1820. In this time period the authors focused on art as inspiration. Romantics believed that nature and art, instead of science, could best express universal truth (Unknown, 2008). Many of the romantic writers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, said that an essay, story or poem without heart was not a good piece of poetry or literature. They believed that literature should have heart, not rules (Woodlief, 2001). This changed a lot in American literature as well as the apparition of writers.
Major literary movements developed in the romantic period. One was the Transcendentalism movement, which was stimulated by English and German romanticism, and was based on fundamental belief in the unity of the world and God (Unknown, 2008). It all began as a religious concept rooted in the ideas of American democracy. The transcendentalists espoused a new religious philosophy because they meant that the Unitarian Church had become too conservative. In the words of
Setvin further explains that Emerson means that people set the principles in which they live by, and how they view oneself as a person. People view the world through their own eyes and all interpret life around us differently. Although this piece of literature was written over one-hundred years ago, we can still see the importance that could potentially have had a dramatic effect on the way people viewed the world and society as a whole. Emerson incorporated these ideas of individuality into his work allowing the readers to think for themselves (Setvin).
By studying nature, one could get in touch with the divine, with “The Over-Soul” or the soul that is present in all things, even in humans. Based on this, one could also gain insight into the divine by contemplation. For each part of the creature was a microcosm, a reflection of the whole. In itself man could find the universal moral law (Bickman). Many authors wrote poems and essays about their different cultures and beliefs.
In this quote Emerson is elaborating on the idea that we must all exude intellectual independence and nonconformity (Setvin). Ralph W. Emerson published his famous book Nature in 1836, which was the book that truly made him the centre of the American Transcendentalism movement.
Many of the Transcendentalists became involved in social reform movements, especially anti-slavery and women’s rights. Many people keep asking why they got involved in these particular problems. The Transcendentalists believed that at all people had access to divine inspiration, and that they sought and loved freedom, knowledge and truth. Thus, those institutions of society which fostered vast differences in the ability to be educated, to be self-directed, were institutions to be reformed. Women and African-descended slaves were human beings who deserved the same ability to become educated, to fulfill their human potential, to be fully human, just as all other humans (Lewis, 2001). Emerson saw slavery as inherently wrong because it crushed the spiritual development of slaves. He protested against slavery, with other transcendentalists, in various ways. Finally, the transcendentalists laid great emphasis on the spiritual value of nature (Encyclopedia, 2008).
Transcendentalism was anchored in the transcendental philosophy of German Idealism, which the New England intellectuals of the early 19th century embraced as an alternative to the Lockean “sensualism” of the Unitarian church. They desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles. By that they meant that they would use principles which were not based on, or falsifiable by, sensuous experience, but deriving from the inner, spiritual or mental essence of the human. Immanuel Kant stated that “all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects.” The transcendentalists were largely enlightened with German philosophy in the original, so they relied primarily on the writings of Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Victor Cousin, Germaine de Staël. In contrast of the philosophy which was unknown for the transcendentalist, they were very familiar with the English Romantics. The transcendental movement was a little later than the English Romantics, but we can look at it as an American outgrowth of Romanticism.
Many of the famous transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, were all at one time teachers. They got a lot of hands-on-knowledge, through the teaching, about the problems of the American education system. Emerson was one of the transcendentalists who tried to improve the education system. Emerson would have liked to see more academic freedom for college students. His opinion was that the students should have free choice of subjects, less professional control (no grades), and he meant that the professors should not try to inspire their students. Emerson meant that the most important task for a teacher was to “awake in the student the desire of finding their own vision” (Grocholski). There was also one other thing that Emerson found important, and that was to exercise the student’s perception. This particular thing was important, as Emerson said, “the world exists for the education of man.” To bring this to the surface was the role of a teacher, in Emerson’s eyes.
The American transcendentalism movement was a religious, philosophical and literary movement. The movement began as a religious concept rooted in the ideas of American democracy. It was no coincidence that the transcendentalist movement took off just as the American literary tradition was beginning to flourish. In addition to the theme of American democracy, transcendentalist literature also promoted the idea of nature as divine and the human soul as inherently wise. The transcendentalist brought a lot of thoughts and philosophy into the movement. Slavery and the Civil War, women’s rights, growing industrialism and class division were all events that influenced and had a role to play in the transcendentalist movement (Napierkowski, 2006).
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