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What is this philosophy?  How did it begin?   What draws people to transcendentalism?

xTranscendentalism is a religious and philosophical movement that was developed during the late 1820s and 1830s in the Eastern region of the United States as a protest against the general state of spirituality and, in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School.  Among the transcendentalists’ core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both people and nature.

Transcendentalists believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.  The Transcendentalists can be understood in one sense by their context — by what they were rebelling against, what they saw as the current situation and therefore as what they were trying to be different from. Transcendentalism first arose among New England Congregationalists who differed from orthodox Calvinism on two issues. They rejected predestination, and they emphasized the unity instead of the trinity of God.  The transcendentalists took the stance that empirical proofs of religion were not possible

One way to look at the Transcendentalists is to see them as a generation of well-educated people who lived in the decades before the American Civil War and the national division that it    both reflected and helped to create.   These people, mainly in the New England/Boson area, and had attempted to create a uniquely American type of literature.  And the people in New England felt that it was time for a literary independence, so they went about creating literature, essays, poetry, novels, philosophy and other forms of writing that clearly were different from what could be found in England, France, Germany or any other European Nation.

Transcendentalists is to see them as a generation of people struggling to define spirituality and religion (our words, not necessarily theirs) in a way that took into account the new understandings their age made available.

The new Biblical Criticism in Germany and elsewhere had been looking at the Christian and Jewish scriptures through the eyes of literary analysis and had raised questions for some about the old assumptions of religion.   The enlightenment had   come to new rational conclusions about the natural world, mostly based on experimentation and logical thinking. The pendulum was swinging, and a more Romantic way of thinking — less rational, more intuitive, more in touch with the senses — was coming into vogue. Those new rational conclusions had raised important questions, but were no longer enough.

This new generation looked at the previous generation’s rebellions of the early 19th century Unitarians and Universalists against traditional Trinitarianism and against Calvinist pre-destinationarianism. This new generation decided that the revolutions had not gone far enough, and had stayed too much in the rational mode.    The spiritual hunger of the age also gave rise to a new evangelical Christianity which then fed into an intuitive, experiential, passionate, more-than-just rational perspective.   God   gave humankind the gift of intuition, the gift of insight, the gift of inspiration.  Why should man waste such a gift?

Added to all this, the scriptures of non-Western cultures were discovered in the West, translated, and published so that they were more widely available. Many well educated persons had started to read the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, and examine their own religious assumptions against these scriptures. In their perspective, a loving God would not have led so much of humanity astray; there must be truth in these scriptures, too. Truth, if it agreed with an individual’s intuition of truth, must be indeed truth.  As a result Transcendentalism was born.     According to Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “We will speak with our own minds, will walk with our own feet, and will work with our own hands.  A nation of men will exist for the first time,    due in large part, believing themselves inspired by the Divine Soul which inspires all men.”      NOT just men, but women also.

Most of the Transcendentalists became involved as well in social reform movements, especially anti-slavery and women’s rights. (Abolitionism was the word used for the more radical branch of anti-slavery reformism; feminism was a word that was invented deliberately in France some decades later and was not found in the time of the Transcendentalists.) Why social reform, and why these issues in particular?

The Transcendentalists, despite some remaining Euro-chauvinism in thinking that people with British and German backgrounds were more suited for freedom than others  also believed that at the level of the human soul, all people had access to divine inspiration and sought and loved freedom and knowledge and truth.

We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds… A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men (Emerson).  So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes? It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? And of the affections, — What is good? By yielding itself passive to the educated will. …Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.    Transcendentalists were strong believers in the power of the individual and divine messages. Their beliefs are closely linked with those of the Romantics.

The transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles: principles not based on or falsifiable by, physical experience, but deriving from the inner spiritual or mental essence of humans.     In contrast, they were intimately familiar with the English Romantics, and the transcendental movement may be partially described as a slightly later American outgrowth of Romanticism.    Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.

Transcendentalism has been influenced by Asian religions.  The transcendentalists varied in their interpretations of the practical aims of will. Some linked it with utopian social change; while some connected it with early socialism, while others considered it an exclusively individualist and idealist project.

There is no such thing as a transcendental party; that there is no pure transcendentalist; that we know of, no one but prophets and heralds of such a philosophy; that all who by strong bias of nature have learned to the spiritual side in doctrine, have stopped short of their goal. We have had many harbingers and forerunners; but of a purely spiritual life, history has afforded no example. There is yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels’ food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands. …Shall we say, then, that transcendentalism is the Saturnalia or excess of Faith; the presentiment of a faith proper to man in his integrity, excessive only when his imperfect obedience hinders the satisfaction of his wish.

Transcendentalism was, in many aspects, the first notable American intellectual movement. It certainly was the first to inspire succeeding generations of American intellectuals, as well as a number of literary monuments.   The movement directly influenced the growing movement of “Mental Sciences” of the mid-19th century, which would later become known as the New Thought movement. Transcendentalism also influenced Hinduism.

The Brahmo Sama rejected Hindu mythology, but also the Christian trinity and found that Unitarianism came closest to true Christianity, and had a strong sympathy for the Unitarians, who were closely connected to the Transcendentalists.    Its theology was called “neo-Vedanta” by Christian commentators, and has been highly influential in the modern popular understanding of Hinduism, but also of modern western spirituality, which re-imported the Unitarian influences in the disguise of the seemingly age-old Neo-Vedanta.  Early in the movement’s history, the term “Transcendentalists” was used as a pejorative term by critics, who were suggesting their position was beyond sanity and reason.

The term “transcendentalism” sometimes serves as shorthand for transcendental idealism, which is the philosophy of many German Idealist philosophers. The better part of this philosophy deals with “all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects.”

Another alternative meaning for “transcendentalism” is the classical philosophy that God transcends the manifest world. We know not what God is. God himself doesn’t know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends all being.

Kathy Kiefer


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