When you read the works of famous authors like poet Walt Whitman, you may not initially realize that their words are infused with the thoughts of a 19th century movement. Transcendentalism was a philosophical and literary movement in the 1800s associated with a small yet active group of educators, activists and religious leaders. This list included Whitman's contemporaries like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller. Over time, the number of people influenced by transcendentalism increased with many of the core values and beliefs of the movement still affecting American cultural and political views today.
Transcendentalists believed that society and social institutions, such as organized religion and political parties, corrupted the purity of individuals. Therefore, the guiding principle of transcendentalism, is the belief that people are at their best when they are self-reliant and independent. Emerson's 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist" summed up the movement's values. However, since the vast majority of transcendentalists were nonconformists and eccentrics, Emerson's work did not purport to speak for the entire movement. However, it is possible to identify some basic beliefs and principles by reading the works of other group members and coupling this with an understanding of their sources and influences.
Idealism and the Metaphysical
While some transcendentalists were Christian, that was not a key requirement for joining the intellectual movement. A key value of the movement was a celebration of the body, sex and the physical appetite, ideas that would have made many Christians of the time uncomfortable. This idealized view of the body was coupled with a sense of metaphysics, or a higher order of things. Transcendentalists believed that there was a higher law that guided the way society and its institutions worked. This idea of natural law continues to influence much of jurisprudential philosophy in the 21st century.
Despite their varied religious beliefs, transcendentalists generally viewed spirituality as a necessity for the "pure life." East Asian literature and sacred writings from Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam influenced this focus on spirituality. A belief in a cosmic unity and in the ultimate connection between all living things was at the core of transcendentalism.
Unlike their contemporaries including Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, transcendentalists strongly expressed their social criticism and moral disgust regarding society while still ultimately believing people are more or less good with a purpose to serve while on earth. Transcendentalists viewed society as wasting away thanks to wayward political institutions and a lack of spiritual awareness. Despite these beliefs, the writings of the transcendentalists are generally optimistic in tone.