Transcendentalism—The Basics

Transcendentalism 101
The American Heritage dictionary defines Transcendentalism as “a literary and
philosophical movement asserting the existence of an ideal spiritual reality that
transcends the empirical and scientific and is knowable through intuition.”
Key definitions:
 spiritual: of or pertaining the spirit or soul
 transcend: a verb meaning to go beyond, to not be confined by previously set limits
 empirical and scientific: refers to that which can be proven; concrete results which
can be specifically observed and recorded
 intuition: The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational
processes (physical proof); immediate cognition
American Transcendentalism began with Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Transcendentalists believed that individuals were capable of understanding spirituality
and truth on their own, and they were most likely to find it by spending time in nature.
Emerson was banned from Harvard after discussing this in a speech there.
Thoreau listened to this speech and put many of Emerson’s ideas into action, most
famously during his two year stay at a cabin in Walden Woods where he wrote a book
expanding on transcendentalism.
Transcendentalism emphasized the individual. The conventional
view of the time gave authority to organized institutions of
government, education, and religion. The Industrial Revolution was
also spreading throughout America, and with it, the concept of
mass production. Machines were replacing people, and the
Transcendentalists feared a society where individuals no longer had
value. What if technological advancement became more important
than individual improvement? The Transcendentalists wanted
individuals to reach their potential and live meaningful lives. Since they believed all
humans had a direct connection to the divine via the Oversoul (explained below),
individuals had access to the universal principles that could make them better people:
spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. Each individual was responsible for
understanding his or her own purpose in life and then using that understanding to
become a better person. According to the Transcendentalists, such individual reform
would lead to a whole society of better people, which would ultimately make society a
better place too. For this reason, many Transcendentalists were interested in social
reform issues of the time period such as the abolition of slavery and educational reform.
Basic Beliefs of the Transcendentalists:
1. Individuals should strive to go beyond the ordinary (to transcend).
2. Every individual is capable of imaginative power, of becoming extraordinary.
3. One becomes extraordinary by means of the soul, not the senses but intuition.
4. Individuals should live according to their intuition and principles instead of
blindly following the rules of society.
5. The essence of truth is Goodness and all people are meant to be Good; a lack of
Goodness comes from a lack of listening. Individuals are more likely to find this
Goodness if they spend more time in Nature.
6. One becomes Good by learning from and living in harmony with Nature. The
Transcendentalists believed people needed to get away from the distractions of society.
They believed in what they called the Oversoul, a divine spirit or mind that connected
each individual and everything in Nature. The Transcendentalists thought all people
were inherently good and would be so if they listened to the right influences, especially
those found in Nature. Humans will better understand themselves and their purpose
by learning from and living in harmony with Nature.
7. Acting on all of these things allows individuals to live deliberately.
Concepts of Transcendentalism
Dead Poets Society
Living deliberately