Transcendentalism was a group of intelligent, socially conscious men and women walking around Massachusetts around the mid 1800’s. Think Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau (although several women were major parts of the movement). Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” the most uplifting words that have flooded my eyes, changed my life forever and continue to do so. I re-read Emerson yearly. Also Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” I will warn readers that the language and writing style of these transcendentalists can be rough-going and non-sensical at times, but for me it always penetrates my soul, leaving me with wisdom that is non-propositional, felt, based in conduct.
They took their name partly from Kant‘s “transcendental idealism”. They accepted that a world exists beyond our perception of reality. There is a “transcendent” reality. Secondly, the world as we perceive it is, in part, a mental construct interpreted by our brains, “in our minds” so to speak, mental rather than physical. At bottom, Emerson says, Mind is primal, not matter; mind comes first. Thus they were “idealists”. They were not anti-science.
They were anti-establishment, anti-authority. In other words, they agreed with Kant’s definition of Enlightenment: think for yourself. They lived it. They were against slavery well before the Civil War. When Thoreau disagreed with paying taxes to pay for a senseless war, he didn’t pay them. He went to jail instead. This inspired Gandhi. When Thoreau disagreed with the materialistic consumption of America, he lived in the woods and wrote one of the most influential essays in the world. They disagreed with each other and themselves. “Do I contradict myself?” said Whitman. “Very well. Then I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.”
They believed in the indomitable spirit of man, the amazing power of the self. We are God. “I am part and parcel of God,” said Whitman. Therefore, we can do anything. Yet, amazingly, they were humble men. Emerson, an incredible man, was also tortured by his potential and his struggle to do great things; it haunted him.
They were unabashed optimists. Emerson, whose life was a series of family tragedies and suffering, was the most optimistic among them: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”
They shared the religious and moral impulse, yet a fierce individualism found most of them in the ranks of Unitarianism, a pluralistic form of Christianity at the time. They hated dogma and loved the Divine so much they could not keep a religion. Emerson was a Unitarian preacher for a time; Thoreau’s religion was nature; Whitman’s God was in daily events: “I know nothing else but miracles.”