Transcendentalism was a spiritual and artistic renaissance that took place in the United States from roughly 1835-1880. Its leaders sought to establish a uniquely American philosophy that wasn't bound by European intellectual, governmental or religious dogma. Transcendentalism's intellectual epicenter was in New England, where its most prominent thinkers including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau were located., The movement also included famous adherents throughout the northeast, such as Walt Whitman in Brooklyn and the painters of New York's Hudson River School.
Transcendentalism was founded on the idea that governments and organized religious institutions corrupted the purity of the individual spirit. A Unitarian-based rebellion against the strict New England Calvinism that preceded it -- which believed human nature to be inherently depraved -- transcendentalists argued that people are closest to God when they are self-reliant and thinking and behaving independently. In his 1837 Harvard dissertation, "The American Scholar," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "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."
The ancient Greek aphorism, "Know Thyself" is another cornerstone of American Transcendentalism. Transcendentalists believed that the entire universe is a duplicate of the individual self, and therefore knowledge of the outside universe could only be ascertained through intimate self-examination. Instead of looking to life experiences for knowledge, Transcendentalists sought enlightenment from what they believed to be an intrinsic inner connection to God, the rest of the world and the entire universe.
Transcendentalists believed that nature and man are intertwined and designed to fit together like pieces of a larger puzzle and that total consciousness could be achieved through observing nature. Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" chronicles the more than two years he spent living in solitude in the woods. In his 1836 essay "Nature" Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man."
Because of the philosophy's focus on individuality, the transcendentalists leaned heavily on the concept of idealism as portrayed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his landmark metaphysical dissertation "Critique of Pure Reason," Kant writes that external matter and circumstances have a direct correlation to internal perception. The external world, he theorized, provides the things we sense, but the manner in which we process and sense them gives the world order. Kant's revolutionary philosophy is the basis of the Transcendentalist belief that the individual self is intertwined with the outside universe.
- PBS: The American Renaissance and Transcendentalism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Transcendentalism
- The Thoreau Society: Transcendentalism
- World Religion Watch: Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson — Transcendentalism at the Core of the American Identity
- California State University Stanislous: Perspectives in American Literature, Transcendentalism
- Academia.edu: Transcendental Idealism and Metaphysics
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