Thursday, December 8, 2011

Transcendentalism: a Religion or a Philosophy?

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American transcendentalism was an important movement in philosophy and literature that flourished during the early to middle years of the nineteenth century (about 186-1860). It began as a reform movement in the Unitarian church, extending the views of William Ellery Channing on an indwelling God and the significance of intuitive thought. It was based on a monism holding to the unity of the world and God, and the immanence of God in the world (Oxford Companion to American Literature 770). For the transcendentalists, the soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the world and contains what the world contains.

Transcendentalists rejected Lockean empiricism, unlike the Unitarians they wanted to rejuvenate the mystical aspects of New England Calvinism (although none of its dogma) and to go back to Jonathan Edwards divine and supernatural light, imparted immediately to the soul by the spirit of God.

Key statements of its doctrine include Emersons essays, especially Nature (186), The American Scholar (187), The Divinity School Address (188), The Transcendentalist (184), and Self-Reliance, and Thoreaus Walden (1854). Others involved in the Transcendental Club and its magazine The Dial included Margaret Fuller, editor of The Dial (1840-4), Amos Bronson Alcott, and William Ellery Channing.

New England Transcendentalism was the product of foreign influences and native American Puritan tradition. It is strongly influenced by idealistic philosophy of Germany and France. The idealistic concept of Schelling and Fichte as well as of Kant¡¯s Critique of Pure Reason find their expression in transcendentalism. French eclectism, especially that of Cousin, Collard, Gerando and Jouffroy, also proved to be an effective means for the transmission of Kantian and Platonic doctrine to America. Accidentally, nearly all the champions of New England Transcendentalism were religious by training or temperament. What Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalisms endeavored to do was in fact to reassert the religious idealism of their Puritan tradition and rephrase their thoughts in forms and terms they borrowed from sources like German Idealism. We also notice that the Transcendentalist¡¯s emphasis on the individual was directly traceable to the Puritan principle of self-culture and self-improvement.

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In short, Transcendentalism can be understood as a philosophical treatment or a transformation of the Christian Belief. The essence of Transcendentalism is still the strong belief in God as the supreme power and controller of the universe, although transcendentalists sometimes called it Oversoul. Transcendentalism is also a philosophy although it is not so systematical as that of Kant or Marx. It is more like the philosophy of the ancient philosophers like Confucius or Plato, setting some unsystematic principles by their own conscience, intuition or reasoning and then follow those principles with a religious zest.

The most ardent follower of his own principle of all the Transcendentalists is Henry David Thoreau (1817-186). In 1845 he went to built a cabin on a piece of Emerson¡¯s property on Walden Pond, and moved in on July 4 to live there in a very simple manner for a little over two years. The idea was to move away from the rush and bustle of American social life which was to him getting more and more sadly materialistic-oriented. There on the pond he tried to be self-sufficient in everything, spending, as he told us, about six weeks a year, planting beans and other crops, and working to eke out a scanty yet decent livelihood, but writing and enjoying nature most of the time for the rest of the year. He wrote a book called Walden to account his experience and reflections when he lived by the Walden Pond. What he wants to show to his contemporaries is that one can choose to live a better life than what the commercial society offers.

Thoreau¡¯s masterpiece, Walden, is a great Transcendentalist work. As a young man Thoreau took a more than usual interest in the natural world. Like Emerson, he saw nature as a genuine restorative, healthy influence on man¡¯s spiritual well-being, and regarded it as a symbol of spirit. He tried to seek a way to unlock the secrets of the spirit. ¡°Let us not underrate the value of a fact it will one day flower into a truth,¡± he thus wrote. To him, ¡°we are able to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of reality that surrounds us.¡± Thoreau thought in images. It was his firm belief that ¡°natural objects and phenomena are the original symbols or types which express our thoughts and feelings.¡± Thoreau was never tired of staying alone in nature; he was ever seen lost in contemplation of the world around. Indeed, Walden is a faithful record of his reflections when he was in solitary communion with nature, an eloquent indication that he not only embraced Emerson¡¯s Transcendentalist philosophy but went even further to illustrate the pantheistical quality of nature. He can sit by a woodchuck for half an hour, talking to it. To him moose and pinetrees are as immortal as he is, and ¡°perchance will go to as high as heaven, there to tower above me still.¡± What he is trying to say is in fact this, that it is possible to find godhead in the nearby wood. Thoreau¡¯s idea came very close to being heathenish and nature-worship.

Thoreau set out some principles that can be called philosophy of life, can then regarded those principles as divine doctrines and followed them with a religious zest.

It is self-evident that, without the introduction of European philosophies into New England and their influence on Christianity, Transcendentalism could never been born. However, the religious side of Transcendentalism is much more deep-rooted and essential than the philosophical side of it. The chief champion of Transcendentalism, R. W. Emerson, was never tired of exploring the universe with the essential ideas of Christianity, though in other terms than what is in the Bible. His chief work, Nature, is in fact an elaboration of his own understanding of the Bible. In this book he gave many other names to God, such as Oversoul, Universal Being, Grand mind, etc. He also emphasized the omnipresence and omnipotence of God (though often called by other names like Oversoul). ¡°Philosophically considered,¡± he states in his Nature, ¡°the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul,¡± He made many famous statements on this point ¡°Each mind lives in the Grand Mind, ¡±There is one mind common to all individual men,¡± and ¡°Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life.¡±

In his Divinity School Address, he attributed social ethics and morality to an teleological end¨C¨C¨Cthe mind, which is another name for God.

These facts have always suggested to man the sublime creed, that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise. Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he. For all things proceed out of this same spirit, which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in its different applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores which it washes. All things proceed out of the same spirit, and all things conspire with it. Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends, he bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries; his being shrinks out of all remote channels, he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death.

In the above passage it is shown that Transcendentalism has a much stronger emphasis on the omnipresent influence of God on the world than what Deism understood. Although Transcendentalists treat the Bible with philosophical, speculative, rational, logical, enlightened, and reasonable mind, they never lost their sincerity and ardency in their belief in God. Thoreau even lived for two years in the solitude of Walden Pond like Jesus Christ before beging his teaching. Emerson once experienced a moment of ¡°ecstasy¡± which he records thus in this Nature

Standing on the bare ground, ¨C¨C¨Cmy head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, ¨C¨C¨Call mean egoism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

Religion is a belief in some occult teachings that are capable of many interpretations and the believers simply hold that those teachings are truth or manifestation of truth. Sometimes this belief can be blind misused by some rulers for gains in wealth or power, as in the case of the bloody Crusade. Philosophy is the pursuit and elaboration of truth or what the philosophers understand to be truth. Philosophy is based on science and intellectual speculation, but there are limitations in the scientific discoveries in any time of the past human history and there is also much limit to the human intellect. Religion is based on the supernatural and supermental, which is sometimes misunderstood, misinterpreted or intentionally misused by the intellectual mind, and therefore often become dangerous. When these two are successfully combined, human mind is better equipped. Belief give the pursuit of truth an access to the unknown, and reason gives belief a safeguard against mania. Transcendentalism is a revolutionary attempt to combine those two identities, and it has become both a religion and philosophy. It lacks neither the essence of Christianity nor the principles of rationality and logical speculation. Most valuable of all, the Transcendentalists are neither enslaved by the dogmatic teachings in the Holly book, nor limited by the scientific discoveries in their time. They are always revolutionary in spirit and they never cease in their pursuit of truth and their work toward the perfection of humanity.


Emerson, R. W. Nature, New York E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 161.

Emerson, R. W. Divinity School Address, Princeton, N. J. Princeton Univ. Press, 157.

Thoreau, H. D., Walden, New York Dell, 160.

Greenberg, W., The Emergence of Transcendentalism, New York Grosset and Dunlap, 165.


Emerson, R. W. Nature, New York E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 161.

Emerson, R. W. Divinity School Address, Princeton, N. J. Princeton Univ. Press, 157.

Thoreau, H. D., Walden, New York Dell, 160.

Greenberg, W., The Emergence of Transcendentalism, New York Grosset and Dunlap, 165.

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