Transcendentalism Overview - Mercer Island School District

Transcendentalism was a group of new ideas in literature, religion, culture, and philosophy that
emerged in New England in the early to middle 19th Century. Transcendentalism began as a
protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of
intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity
School. Among transcendentalist core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state that “transcends” the
physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than
through the doctrines of established religions.
The publication of Emerson's 1836 essay “Nature” is usually taken to be the watershed moment
at which transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson wrote in his essay "The
American Scholar": "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….”
Transcendentalism became a coherent movement with the founding of the Transcendental Club
in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1836, by prominent New England intellectuals
including George Putnam, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Henry Hedge. From 1840, the
group published frequently in their journal The Dial, along with other venues.
The practical aims of the transcendentalists were varied; some among the group linked it with
utopian social change and explicitly with early socialism, while others found it an exclusively
individual and idealist project (Also, later in Marxism). (Karl Marx: 1818-1883; Communist
Manifesto – 1848). Emerson believed in the individual and idealistic viewpoint. In his 1842
lecture "The Transcendentalist," Emerson suggested that the goal of a purely transcendental
outlook on life was impossible to attain in practice (Neo-Platonism).
Transcendentalists were strong believers in the power of the individual and divine messages.
Their beliefs are closely linked with those of the Romantics. The movement directly influenced
the growing movement of Mental Sciences of the mid 1800s which would later become known
as the New Thought movement.
Transcendentalism was rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which the
New England intellectuals of the early 19th century embraced as an alternative to Lockean
"sensualism" practiced by the Unitarian church, finding this alternative in Vedic thought
Hinduism), German idealism, and English Romanticism.
The transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental
principles: principles not based on, or falsifiable by, sensuous experience, but deriving from the
inner, spiritual or mental essence of the human.
They were intimately familiar with the English Romantics, and the transcendental movement
may be partially described as a slightly later, American outgrowth of Romanticism.
Thoreau in Walden spoke of the debt to the Vedic thought directly, as did other members of the
movement. Respect for Confucianism and Hinduism.
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe had a deep dislike for transcendentalism,
calling its followers "Frogpondians." He ridiculed their writings in particular by calling them
"metaphor-run," lapsing into "obscurity for obscurity's sake" or "mysticism for mysticism's
Three Modes of Rhetorical Persuasion:
Logos: topics of rational argument or the arguments themselves. How humans use
wisdom to negotiate with each other, and with nature.
Pathos: pity or compassion. The ability to feel a range of emotion, and to use emotion to
communicate and persuade.
Ethos: value characteristics of a person or people. To know right and wrong. Credibility.
Rhetorical Representations:
Eros: The sum of all instincts for self-preservation (love felt in one’s self): agape is the
nonsexual representation of love. Positive emotional responses to life, companionship,
and nature.
Thanatos: Death instinct – by understanding the value and necessity of death, humans can
not only value life, but also define and increase the quality of life.
Mysticism: the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate
reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, or insight. Mysticism
is found in the following faiths or religions: Yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, NeoPlatonism, Christianity, Islam.
The term '"mysticism'" is used to refer to beliefs and practices which go beyond the liturgical and
devotional forms of worship of mainstream faith, often by seeking out inner or esoteric meanings
of conventional religious doctrine. Mystics hold that there is a deeper or more fundamental state
of existence beneath the observable, day-to day world of phenomena, and that in fact the
ordinary world is superficial or epiphenomenal.
Mysticism may make use of canonical and non-canonical religious texts, and will generally
interpret them hermeneutically. Mystics are more concerned with social or individual
Platonist Salvation
Neo-Platonists believed human perfection and happiness were attainable in this world, without
awaiting an afterlife. Perfection and happiness— seen as synonymous— could be achieved
through philosophical contemplation.
They did not believe in an independent existence of evil. They compared it to darkness, which
does not exist in itself but only as the absence of light. So too, evil is simply the absence of good.
Things are good insofar as they exist; they are evil only insofar as they are imperfect, lacking
some good that they should have.
The Neo-Platonists believed in the pre-existence, and immortality of the soul.
Philosophical relations between Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism
Gnostics believe the divine world emerges from a sole high deity by emanation, radiation,
unfolding and mental self-reflection. Likewise, the technique of self-performable contemplative
mystical ascent towards and beyond a realm of pure. The trinity of the "triple-powered one"
(with the powers consisting of the modalities of life, existence, and mind)
Nonetheless, there were some important philosophical differences. Gnostics emphasized magic
and ritual.