The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Transcendentalism: A movement originating in Europe but flourishing particularly in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century that emphasized individual conscience, social reform, and the primacy of intuition in the pursuit of spiritual and moral truths; a key current within American romanticism. As a religious philosophy, American transcendentalism grew out of liberal Christian Unitarianism while also reacting against its emphasis on rationality. It was translated into literary terms by a group of New England writers and intellectuals that included Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. Influences on transcendentalist thought include Neoplatonism; German Idealism, particularly as expressed by eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant; the mystical philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg; and romantic writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle.

Although transcendentalists were united largely by their opposition to seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke’s empiricism, related Unitarian rationalism, and rigid Calvinist Christian doctrines regarding human depravity, they did hold certain general beliefs in common. Foremost among these was the conviction that each human being is innately divine — that God’s essence lies within all individuals — and that God is also immanent in nature. Transcendentalists expanded on Kant’s idea that there are transcendental categories of knowledge (that is, a priori categories that govern our experience and understanding, such as time and causality) by adding other categories of knowledge (such as moral truth) and by contending that individuals have the ability to discover higher truths intuitively or mystically, without recourse to the senses or logic. Indeed, transcendentalists suggested that reliance on sensory experience and rational thought may actually impede the acquisition of transcendent truths. People can discover moral truths in nature, the transcendentalists argued, with the guidance of their own conscience rather than dogmatic religious doctrine.

In America, transcendentalism is generally dated to 1836, with the publication of Emerson’s essay “Nature” and the formation of the Transcendental Club, initiated by Unitarian minister Frederic Henry Hedge, which met in and around Boston to discuss religious and philosophical matters. Adherents extolled individual rather than ritualistic spiritual living, the virtues of nature and manual labor, and intellectual stimulation. They encouraged self-reliance and self-trust, instigating two major projects in the 1840s — a literary magazine called The Dial (1840—44) and Brook Farm (1841—47), a utopian experiment in communal living founded by George and Sophia Ripley. Furthermore, the transcendentalists were reformers optimistic about human potential, allying themselves with such causes as women’s suffrage and abolitionism.

EXAMPLES: Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (1841); Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), on women’s rights; and Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (first published in 1849 as “Resistance to Civil Government”) and his book Walden (1854). The following lines from Emerson’s poem “Mottoes” (1844) capture something of the spirit and the ideas of the movement:

The rounded world is fair to see,

Nine times folded in mystery:

Though baffled seers cannot impart

The secret of its laboring heart,

Throb thine with Nature’s throbbing breast,

And all is clear from east to west.

Spirit that lurks each form within

Beckons to spirit of its kin;

Self-kindled every atom glows

And hints the future which it owes.