Defining Transcendentalism

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Although I doubt that the definition Emerson offers in “The Transcendentalist” is the ultimate definition of a “transcendentalist,” particularly since these artists disliked the term “transcendentalists,” it is as good a place as any to begin defining the term. Emerson begins by dividing the world into two broad categories, materialists and idealists, and identifying transcendentalism as a form of idealism as opposed to materialism:

What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842. As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell. The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture.

In reality, this division seems nearly as old as philosophy itself:

In the order of thought, the materialist takes his departure from the external world, and esteems a man as one product of that. The idealist takes his departure from his consciousness, and reckons the world an appearance.

This seems to be the same split that is seen between Plato and Aristotle. In light of Emerson’s definition, it’s easy to see why the transcendentalists were also sometimes known as Neo-Platonists.

Unlike the Platonists who tended to see the physical world as reflecting ideal forms or ideas, as described in Plato’s allegory of the caves, the transcendentalists see these truths as emanating from inside the individual:

Mind is the only reality, of which men and all other natures are better or worse reflectors.

Of course, Emerson doesn’t use “mind” in the sense that we usually think of mind, as he points out:

His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him.

The mind is identified with the “Unknown Centre of him,” suggesting, of course, that even Emerson does not have an exact definition of this center, it is the ultimate mystery that lies at the center of our existence. In later works this unknown center seems to be identified with the Oversoul.

If we cannot directly see this “unknown center,” how can we know this mystery? Only indirectly, if we are to believe Emerson:

I — this thought which is called I, — is the mould into which the world is poured like melted wax. The mould is invisible, but the world betrays the shape of the mould. You call it the power of circumstance, but it is the power of me. Am I in harmony with myself? my position will seem to you just and commanding. Am I vicious and insane? my fortunes will seem to you obscure and descending

In this delightful metaphor, Emerson seems to suggest that we are man thinking. We can only truly know someone by how they shape their world. In addition, this metaphor emphasizes the fusion of the individual with the world, and the transcendentalists put particular emphasis on the individual.

The transcendentalists shared many characteristics with the European Romantics, who were reacting against Rationalism as manifested in science and in the industrial revolution. In fact, it has been argued that the transcendentalists are merely an American subset of the Romantic Movement. Certainly, they emphasized nature and the natural world just as European romantics did:

Nature is transcendental, exists primarily, necessarily, ever works and advances, yet takes no thought for the morrow.

And, like the Romantics, the transcendentalists emphasized intuition rather than logic as a means of attaining truth:

It is well known to most of my audience, that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them “Transcendental” forms.

In fact, Emerson seems to suggest that the reliance on intuition is the very essence of transcendentalism:

Although, as we have said, there is no pure Transcendentalist, yet the tendency to respect the intuitions, and to give them, at least in our creed, all authority over our experience, has deeply colored the conversation and poetry of the present day; and the history of genius and of religion in these times, though impure, and as yet not incarnated in any powerful individual, will be the history of this tendency.

And, like the Romantics, the transcendentalists suggested that beauty and truth were identical:

But this class are (sic) not sufficiently characterized, if we omit to add that they are lovers and worshippers of Beauty. In the eternal trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, each in its perfection including the three, they prefer to make Beauty the sign and head.

As artists, of course, the transcendentalists emphasized beauty over truth:

We call the Beautiful the highest, because it appears to us the golden mean, escaping the dowdiness of the good, and the heartlessness of the true. — They are lovers of nature also, and find an indemnity in the inviolable order of the world for the violated order and grace of man.

In emphasizing beauty as truth, the transcendentalists were clearly following in the footsteps of Byron, Shelley, and Keats.

Unlike many Romantics, though, Emerson seemed to be calling upon the transcendentalists to make a difference in the everyday world. He did not feel it was enough to escape the world:

The good, the illuminated, sit apart from the rest, censuring their dullness and vices, as if they thought that, by sitting very grand in their chairs, the very brokers, attorneys, and congressmen would see the error of their ways, and flock to them. But the good and wise must learn to act, and carry salvation to the combatants and demagogues in the dusty arena below.

One of the remarkable aspects of this philosophy that so emphasized individualism is that it also led to numerous reforms in society. These very people who found individualism so important found ways to also emphasize public good. Unlike many of their counterparts in Europe, the transcendentalists were actively involved in reforming society. Emerson’s desire to reform society is easily seen:

The worst feature of this double consciousness is, that the two lives, of the understanding and of the soul, which we lead, really show very little relation to each other, never meet and measure each other: one prevails now, all buzz and din; and the other prevails then, all infinitude and paradise; and, with the progress of life, the two discover no greater disposition to reconcile themselves. Yet, what is my faith? What am I? What but a thought of serenity and independence, an abode in the deep blue sky?

Emerson clearly recognized the limits of Idealism and recognized the difficulty of living life successfully according to such a philosophy:

… there is no such thing as a Transcendental “party”; that there is no pure Transcendentalist; that we know of none but prophets and heralds of such a philosophy; that all who by strong bias of nature have leaned to the spiritual side in doctrine, have stopped short of their goal.

Despite such difficulties, Emerson became the leading advocate of this movement, so much so that he and the term transcendentalism sometimes seem synonymous.

A true definition of transcendentalism is probably only to be found in the varied works that this remarkable group of artists wrote. Certainly there are concepts like Oversoul that seem to be an essential part of transcendentalism that Emerson never even touches on in this particular essay.

Hopefully, the definition will become clearer in the discussion of several of Emerson’s essays that Diane and I will be covering for the rest of the week and in the discussion of other artists within the movement that will come later.

For more introductory material see