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American Transcedentalism
Handed out by Ms Kim
My additions in italics

Nineteenth-century American Transcedentalism is not a religion; it is a pragmatic philosophy, a state of mind, and a form of spirituality. It is not a religion because it does not adhere to the three concepts commin in all religions:

  1. a belief in a God[ess], gods, or some form of divinity/higher being;
  2. a belief in an afterlife (dualism);
  3. a belief that this life has consequences on the next (if you're good in this life, you go to heaven in the next, etc.). Transcedentalism is monist; it does not reject an afterlife, but its emphasis is on this life.
Note: I don't really agree with Ms Kim's way of defining what a religion is. I think the main point, however, was that Transcedentalism is not a religion, rather, it is a philosophy. Think Buddhism, but even more philosophical and less religious.

Central Points of Agreement:

    Note: The Transcedentalists, in keeping with the individualistic nature of this philosophy, disagreed readily with each other. Here are four points of general agreement:
1. Basic Assumption:
    The intuitive faculty, instead of the rational or sensual, became the means for a conscious union of the individual psyche with the world psyche also known as the Oversoul, life-fource, and/or God. One must have faith in intuition, for no church or creed can communicate truth. Death is never to be feared, for at death the soul merely passes to the oversoul.
2. Basic Premises:
  1. An individual is the spiritual center of the universe - and in an individual can be found the clues to nature, history and, ultimately, the cosmos itself. It is not a rejection of the existance of God, but a preference to explain an individual and the world in terms of an individual.
  2. The structure of the universe literally duplicates the structure of the individual self - all knowledge, therefore, begins with self-knowledge. This is similar to Aristotle's dictum "know thyself."
  3. Transcedentalists accepted the neo-Platonic conception of nature as a living mystery, full of signs - that nature is symbolic.
  4. The belief that individual virtue and happiness depend upon self-realization - this depends upon the reconciliation of two universal psychological tendencies:
          a. the expansive or self-transcending tendency - a desire to embrace the whole world - to know and become one with the world.
          b. the contracting or self-asserting tendency - the desire to withdraw, remain unique and seperate - an egotistical existance.
  5. The transcedentalists see the necessity of examples of great leaders, writers, philosophers, and others, to show what an individual can become through thinking and action.
  6. It is foolish to worry about consistency, because what an intelligent person believes tomorrow, if he/she trusts oneself, may be completely different from what that person thinks and believes today. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." - Emerson
3. Correspondence
    It is a concept which suggests that the external is united with the internal. Physical nature is neutral or indifferent or objective; it is neither helpful nor hurtful; it is neither beautiful nor ugly. What makes one give such attributes to nature is that individual's imposition of her/his temperament or mood or psyche. If I'm feeling lousy, I may dismiss a gorgeous day; if I'm feeling bright and cheerful then the most dreary of days becomes tolerable. And so, the Transcedentalists believed that "knowing yourself" and "studying nature" are the same activity. Nature mirrors our psyche. If I cannot understand myself, maybe understanding nature will help.
Reasons for the Rise of American Transcendentalism

There was no one precise "cause" for the beginning of Transcendentalism. According to Paul Boller, chance, coincidence and several independant events, thoughts and tendencies seemed to have converged in the 1830s in New England. Some of these were:

  1. The steady erosion of Calvinism.
  2. The progressive secularization of modern thought under the impact of science and technology.
  3. The emergence of a Unitarian intelligentsia with the means, leisure, and training to pursue literature and scholarship.
  4. The increasing insipidity and irrelevance of liberal religion to question young minds - lack of involvement in women's rights and abolitionism.
  5. The intrusion of the machine into the New England garden and the disruption of the old order by the burgeoning industrialism.
  6. The impact of European ideas on Americans traveling abroad.
  7. The appearance of talented and energetic young people like Emerson, Fuller and Thoreau on the scene.
  8. The imperatives of logic itself for those who take ideas seriously - the impossibility, for instance, of accepting modern science without revising traditional religious views.
Transcendentalism and the American Past

Transcendentalism as a movement is rooted in the American past: to Puritanism it owed its pervasive morality and the "doctrine of divine light." It is also similar to the Quaker "inner light." However, both these concepts assume acts of God, whereas intuition is an act of an individual. In Unitarianism, deity was reduced to a kind of immanent principle in every person - an individual was the true source of moral light. To Romanticism it owed the concept of nature as a living mystery and not a clockwork universe (deism) which is fixed and permanent.

    A subtle chain of countless rings
    The next unto the farthest brings;
    The eye reads omens where it goes,
    And speaks all languages the rose;
    And, striving to be man, the worm
    Mounts through all the spires of form.
    -Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: Early Nineteenth Century - American Transcendentalism: A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide. http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap4/4intro.html (November 14, 2002).