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Transcendentalism was a movement in philosophy, literature, and religion that emerged and was popular in the nineteenth century New England because of a need to redefine man and his place in the world in response to a new and changing society. The industrial revolution, universities, westward expansion, urbanization and immigration all made the life in a city like Boston full of novelty and turbulence. Transcendentalism was a reaction to an impoverishment of religion and mechanization of consciousness of eighteenth century rational doctrines that ceased to be satisfying. After the success of the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, an American man emerged confident and energetic. However, with the release of nervous energy, an American was forced to look at a different angle at his place in the world and society.
The world of the nineteenth century Boston was that of emergence of new currents of thought in response to the conservative atmosphere. The wealthy upper classes (the aristocracy) were conservative and suspicious of any innovations. They dominated the society and demanded conformity to their social ideals, being suspicious of any new structure of society. The irony was that by their reliance on tradition and old beliefs (such as Puritanism) they acknowledged the harmony with cosmic law. Old values and traditions would serve as a base to Transcendentalism, although a radical movement in itself.
In the nineteenth century America plunged into the Industrial Revolution. In the eighteenth century, goods were produced in home system operations. The remarkable development of capitalism in Boston became evident after the French and Indian war of 1812. Two of huge factories privately owned in Boston were Francis Lowell's Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham and Merrimack Manufacturing Company in Lowell. As the role of women in society became more indiscriminate, young females dominated factory towns such as Lowell. They came from all over New England's farms and small towns, worked for a few years and then returned. Thus the mill populations were transient. With mechanization of textiles, new styles and fashions developed. Thus newness was becoming a virtue rather than peril.
Improvement of transportation made urbanization and westward expansion more rapid. Cumberland Turnpike was built in 1811. Erie Canal, finished in 1825, connected Hudson River with the Great Lakes. Baltimore and Ohio Steam Railroad of 1828 linked the country. The first successful steamboat, Clermont, was launched in 1807. Between 1789 and 1850 the total population of the country soared from 4 million to 23 million.
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However, people often could not endure this pace of growth. There was not enough time and money for planning and building of houses. This resulted in overcrowded houses, often with more than one family living in the same room, poor sewage and lighting. This lead to an increase in crime. Ethnic conflicts often resulted in fights between street gangs, as people of the same nationality tended to live close together and battled other ethnic groups. Immigration brought racial conflicts with it just as urbanization brought slums. However, these conditions proved to be a fertile ground for reform, which was one of the reasons for rise and popularity of Transcendentalism whose members occupied themselves with social reform.
Transcendentalism is a belief in a higher reality that could be perceived. The concept of transcendence was first developed by Plato. He believed in existence of absolute goodness, one beyond description. He stated that it could be perceived only through intuition rather than logic or rationality. Ralph Waldo Emerson would later use Plato's other theory that the world is an expression of spirit to develop his theory of correspondence. Kant was the first one to state that God and soul are transcendent. The innate principles with which mind gives form to its perceptions and makes experience intelligible are transcendental. German idealists, such as Fichte, Schelling, Husseri were influenced by Kant who in turn inspired New England transcendental philosophers.
Emerson, the unofficial leader of the transcendentalism whose philosophy served as a paradigm for the movement's members, was also influenced by oriental mysticism. He developed a theory of correspondence, which stated that an individual, (the microcosm or Indian atman), and the Oversoul, (macrocosm or Indian Brahman) have the same structure, because God is immanent in every human being. "We see God around us because he dwells within us. The beauty of God's works is revealed to the mind by a light beaming from itself." Intuition was the means for a conscious union of individual psyche with world psyche. An individual is the spiritual center of the world. Clues to nature, cosmos, and history can be found in an individual. Therefore, all knowledge begins with Aristotle's dictum, "Know thyself," or self-knowledge.
Just like a person can know the world by exploring himself, he can understand his own being by paying close attention to the world around him. Emerson said, "All which philosophy distinguishes as Not Me … is nature." From this concept transcendentalists developed a semi-religious attitude towards nature. Transcendentalists urged people to look to nature to learn about oneself. Nature is a mystery and full of symbols. This concept paved the way for a new current in literature - symbolist literature. Physical nature is in itself neutral. Attributes such as beautiful depend on the individual's disposition. For example, if one feels lousy, he will dismiss a gorgeous day, but if he is in a good mood, bad weather such as rain might seem cheerful to him. Since nature is an individual's mirror, Aristotle's "Know thyself!" is equivalent to "study nature!"
At death, individual souls return to the Oversoul and join with it. For Emerson, the concept of a river was highly symbolic and he carried it through much of his works. "All rivers flow into the ocean." The purpose of life is the union with the Oversoul. For Emerson, a priest was a poet, whose soul resonated very well with the structure and rhythm of the whole. Jesus for him was not divine, but a human who reached total harmony with the world around him. Individual's happiness and virtue depend on self-realization, which in turn depends on the reconciliation of expansive and contracting instincts. The expansive or self-transcending tendency is to know and embrace the world. The contracting or self-asserting tendency is to withdraw, remain unique and separated. This was influenced by Hegel's theory that the purpose of life is the reconciliation of opposites, such as these egoistic and altruistic tendencies.
A person's ultimate goal is to unite with the Oversoul, which is the same as to find harmony in interaction with nature. Nature could be used through commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. Natural world works for the human profit. Humans use nature for commodities: wind is used as steam for power, agriculture is dependent on circulation of light, air, and moisture. Beauty of harmonious working of nature corresponds to the harmonious working of the mind. "The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street, and sees the sky and the woods, and he is a man again." Nature also shapes language. Words are "signs of natural facts," nature is a "symbol of spirit." For example, "right" means "straight", "wrong" means "twisted", "wind" is a metaphor for "spirit". Emerson said, "the whole of nature … is a metaphor for the human mind." Most importantly, nature schools the mind and teaches willpower. One cannot quarrel with categories of time, space. Discipline and wholeness are the climax of correspondence.
Emerson believed nature and God to contain movement. "Nature is not fixed but fluid." Still waters were identified with stagnation, while flow was identified with development and change, and thus with reform. "The waters become impure by standing still, - by your not trying," Bronson Alcott told his students in his Temple School. Emerson expected everyone's mind to flow. "When a man rests he stinks, if anything could stand still, it would be instantly crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted, and if it were a mind, it would be crazed." Transcendentalism was popular among the young questing minds because of its urge for change and reform.
Transcendentalism was a liberal branch of Unitarianism. Unitarians preached stability, harmony, rational thought, progressive morality, classical learning, and other hallmarks of Enlightenment Christianity. The founders of transcendentalism were all Harvard-educated Unitarians. Both Unitarians and transcendentalists considered the emotions to be the drive to translate ethical knowledge, but deplored the excessive emotionalism of the Revivalism. Unitarianism stressed the importance of voluntary ethical conduct and the intellect's ability to discern what constituted ethical conduct. William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian who held much of the Transcendentalist ideas and whom the transcendentalists considered to be the father of the movement, said in the "Unitarian Christianity" sermon in 1819:
"Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books."
Unitarians thought the Revelations to be an external favor of God to assume spiritual progress. The only way for a spiritual transformation to occur would be through the acts of God. In this the transcendentalists departed from their Unitarian heritage.
Even though they carried on many of the ideas of Unitarianism, transcendentalists rejected its coldness. Unitarianism was largely based on Locke, whom transcendentalists despised. Locke stated that knowledge is equal to experience, where the mind is like an empty page on which the senses write the human knowledge. Transcendentalists claimed that consciousness is a reliable source of spiritual insight, and access to knowledge beyond senses is possible for everyone.
Unitarians and transcendentalists disagreed on the role of outside God in revelations. Jonathan Edwards, before the transcendental movement, was the first one to say that an individual can receive divine light directly, without the guidance of a pastor. But this assumes the acts of God, that revelation as divine light can be brought to an individual from the outside, while correspondence proclaims the constant presence of divinity, "the divine light," in each person. By opening the door to the exercise of the intellect and free conscience, and encouraging an individual in his quest for divine meaning, Unitarians unwittingly sowed the seeds for the transcendental revolt.
On the other hand, transcendentalism and Unitarianism shared the belief that there is only one God. Channing said, "There is One God, … the Father; and that Jesus is not this One God, but his son and messenger." Since Jesus was not divine, this provided the hope that humans can realize the Christian ideal in this actual world. Both religions emphasized hope and self-dedication, and despised Calvinist emphasis on sin and punishment. Transcendentalism diverged from Unitarianism because it valued "heart" above "mind". Emerson called Unitarianism "corpse-cold," "an icebox," with "coldness constantly increasing."
Immediately after transcendentalism was acclaimed as a separate religious school, a question of miracles came up. Transcendentalists claimed that Biblical miracles are not important because miracles are all around us. "A mouse is miracle enough to stagger quintillions of infidels," said Walt Whitman. For transcendentalists, God was everywhere, and since nature had spiritual manifestations, they stressed their emphasis on here and now, their concern for life, and not for afterlife. "Give me one world at a time," Thoreau had said. Emerson believed that the idea that Jesus needed to "prove" his power by miracles separated humanity and divinity.
Even though transcendentalism was a liberal branch of Unitarianism which in turn was a liberal reaction of Puritanism and Protestantism, transcendentalists extended many Puritanical and Protestant ideas. Transcendentalists valued Puritanical religious "enthusiasm", "piety" and the doctrine of "divine light". Transcendentalists had Protestant and Puritanical passion for simplification and urge for naked confrontation with God. The leaders of transcendentalism were all Unitarian pastors, who took many old philosophies and ideas and wove them into Unitarianism, thus founding a new religious school.
The reasons for the rise of transcendentalism were many. With the westward expansion into the vast unexplored regions, a romantic attitude towards nature developed as it was celebrated with the New World spirit. Transcendentalism was a philosophy of individualism, aimed at the new American, self-reliant and democratic. The erosion of Calvinism, which urged to minimize speculation and instead draw directly on the Word of God, and the "icebox of Unitarianism," prompted a religion that required a complete devotion and warmness. Democracy and the industrial revolution made an American man confident and not afraid to claim that there is a divinity inside him. It was impossible to accept new science without revising some of the religious views such as miracles. Emerson's favorite metaphor was movement and flow, which was caused by change and reform in nineteenth century America. Thus, transcendentalism was a religion of romanticism and self-reliance.
The idealism of transcendentalism, which stressed spiritual advancement of individual, brought the impulse to minister the spiritual health of society. "If men are divine, why should they be in chains?" Emerson asked himself. "God looks out from human eyes." Channing had said. Thus the transcendentalists set out to remake the world from God's viewpoint. The United States proved to be a fertile ground for reform at that time. Radical reformers wanted to vigorously change and challenge harsh practices of society, such as abuses of capitalism and slavery, which stunt individual growth. This led to the rise of "immediatist" abolitionism of William Lloyd Garrison and quasi-communist economic radicalism of Orestes Brownson's "The Laboring Classes." More conservative reformers were against immediate structural change and bloody upheavals. Emerson, for example, said in his "Self-Reliance" that the safest long-term route to a righteous society is individual moral reform. According to correspondence, self-reform would result in a more global change. The social activism was mostly religious in nature. Ripley said, "The purpose of Christianity … is to redeem society as well as individual from sin." The areas in which transcendental reformers took part were educational reform, prison reform, temperance to other ethnic groups, feminism, poverty relief, and abolitionism.
Transcendentalists claimed that servitude stunts the spiritual growth both of slaves and their masters. William Ellery Channing delivered a "Slavery" speech in 1835. He stated that slavery contravened Christian teachings, thwarted Christian desire to "knit humankind together in a divine fabric of spirituality and freedom." James Freeman Clarke delivered sermons on "the national sin of slavehood." He talked about the duty of abolition and the wrong of annexation of Texas, which would mean an extension of slavery. However, antislavery sentiment existed among the transcendentalists together with ignorance, apathy and racism. Also, in the tumult of controversy over the abolition of slavery, voices from New England were simply not heard. Practical opposition to slavery was completely different from merely denouncing it. Unresolved and unsettling questions remained with respect to the place of freed slaves in American society, assuming abolition came to pass. Emerson clung to his proto-Darwinist views of self-reliance. "The anti-slavery of the whole world is dust in the balance before this, - is a poor squeamishness and nervousness … I say to you, you must save yourself, black or white, man or woman; other help is none." To many transcendentalists any external reform was a false and presumptuous form of social change.
Transcendentalists also attempted reform in gender relations. In the eighteenth century the "cult of domesticity" prevailed, where women's primary workplace was home. However, after the American Revolution, the question about different gender roles became more explicit because of the promise of equality to everyone, and because women increasingly began to take part in economics and politics. In theory, transcendentalists favored gender reform. However, in practice they were often prejudiced, just like in slavery reform. Thoreau, for example, had both idealistic and misogynist comments about women. "If the weather is too warm and rainy … it becomes mere diarrhea …This is woman's poetry."
Margaret Fuller was the most successful and active feminist reformer out of all the transcendentalists. Between 1839 and 1844 she conducted classes of "conversations" for women in literature, education, mythology and philosophy. In 1845, Margaret Fuller published "Women in the Nineteenth Century," a feminist book of demand for political equality and a plea for emotional, spiritual and intellectual fulfillment of women. Fuller worked to obtain female suffrage and extra-domestic activity. According to her, women were to define themselves not in relation to men, but in relation to themselves and to God. In "Women in the Nineteenth Century" she wrote, "I would have woman lay aside all thought, such as she habitually cherishes, of being taught and led by men. I would have her, like the Indian girl, dedicate herself to the Sun, the Sun of Truth, and go no where if his beams did not clear the path." Fuller tried to enrich and dignify women's place in society.
Bronson Alcott worked on educational writings and experiments. At that time, education even in Harvard was based on memorization and recitation of lessons. Alcott taught in Temple School, where he developed a new educational system on which today's teaching techniques are based. He used psychology to probe pupil's minds in order to strengthen and purify reason. He aimed to treat the students' minds as capable of growth and not just receiving information. For him, education was calling forth and cultivating the divinity inside his pupil, not an imposition of external forms upon a passive intellect. In 1828 he wrote in his journal, "The province of the instructor should be … awakening, directing, rather than forcing the child's faculties upon a prescribed and exclusive courses of thought." With his radical teaching techniques Bronson Alcott made an impact on education which is still evident today.
Frederick Henry Hedge and Orestes Brownson worked on quasi-communist reforms against the evils brought together with success of the Industrial Revolution. Hedge, although one of the more conservative transcendentalists, attempted reform aimed at the huge breach between the extremes of rich and poor in his time, brought by capitalism. Regardless of his affirmation of progress and the practical genius of America, he was suspicious of excessive materialism and political ambition, and saw in the "growing luxury of our cities" a profound threat to liberty and equality. Brownson wrote in "The Laboring Classes" that factory systems in the North were as psychologically destructive as slavery in the South. Capitalism and private ownership brought competition and insecurity, which result in primitive warfare. Still, Brownson saw that Industrial Revolution was there to stay and abolition of private property would be highly impractical and unachievable. Inspired by the new "Jacksonian" democracy, transcendentalists attempted communal living experiments such as Brook Farm and Fruitlands.
Andrew Jackson was inaugurated president in 1829. He introduced a new era in American politics. He was the first president from the new west. He became the symbol of the political power of the common people in the United States. He brought local autonomy, free public education for all, and universal suffrage. Most of his supporters were members of the renamed Democratic party, founded originally by Thomas Jefferson. Jacksonian democracy stressed both equality and individualism.
Transcendentalism served as a metaphysical basis to explain and justify newfound democracy. The need for reconciliation of expansive and contracting impulses of transcendentalism is similar to democracy, where a person needs to realize without sacrificing both his need for liberty (egoistic tendency) and his goal of equality.