All About Transcendentalism: (FSF Philosophy Guide)

"Landscape and Transcendence" created by Jasper Francis Cropsey, a Transcendentalist artist - Credit: Albany Institute of History and Art

What Is Transcendentalism?

Transcendentalism is a philosophy that arose in 1800s America and held that every soul is equal. The philosophy is deeply rooted in spirituality. Transcendence is seen as a personal, individual journey without requiring any outside guidance or influence. Transcendentalist thought embraces idealism and has a strong respect for nature. Moreover, Transcendentalism proposes that knowledge is gained through intuition and time in nature rather than through reason. Further, Transcendentalism upholds an emphasis on self-reliance and independence as an individual, which contributes to the idea of transcendence being achieved through a personal journey. These values were instrumental in many social movements and reform efforts throughout the Antebellum, but were also highly controversial at the time.

The History of Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism was a movement that originated in New England in the early 1800s. The original Transcendentalists started as Unitarians, a denomination of Christianity characterized by its emphasis on reason in approaching religion and its belief that Jesus Christ was a mortal man. Transcendentalists broke away from a rational approach to religion as they were influenced by the spiritual focus of German Romanticism. Those most associated with this way of thinking were connected through a group in Boston known as the Transcendental Club. The group began in 1836 as a small meeting of Harvard Alumni discussing the state of Unitarianism. Over the next four years, the Transcendental Club grew to include many Unitarian Ministers, writers, reformers, and other intellectuals with the only rule being that they could discuss anything presented. The meetings were often led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley, and Frederic Henry Hodge, and involved many other contributors of the time, such as Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. The club published a group periodical called The Dial and club content influenced many transcendentalist writings produced by the members.

Transcendentalist thought aligned with America’s foundation that “all men are created equal” and emphasized America’s turning away from European influence and turning towards the formation of a separate national identity. Transcendentalism was formulated during the Antebellum Reform in the 1830s. The movement was primarily led by Orestes Brownson and George Ripley in an effort to create a more equal society. Transcendentalist thought overlapped with efforts of social reform during the antebellum period. The theme of equality in this philosophy fueled many transcendentalists to actively engage in social reform movements.

During the 1840s, there was a split among the Transcendentalists. Emerson held that an emphasis on one’s individual journey takes precedence over others’ spiritual conditions. This fueled criticism by many, including but not limited to Peabody, Healey, and Henry James Sr. They opposed Emerson’s emphasis on the self due to feeling that this mentality would lead to a distortion of faith.

The enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 led the Transcendentalists to heavily focus on the abolition of slavery. This proved costly as they largely ceased to focus on social reforms for other groups. Also in the year 1850, Margaret Fuller’s death marked a loss of influence for Transcendentalism, and the Transcendental Club never again materialized.

After the Civil War, Transcendentalists continued to work for the rights of other groups, yet most did not get involved with the other pressing reform efforts of the time. In the 1870s, Transcendentalism shifted towards individual rights and market capitalism rather than efforts of social reform. Also, most likely due to Emerson’s influence, the importance of brotherhood that individualism was usually paired with no longer persisted. The shift away from brotherhood and social reform is seen as contributing to the loss of prevalence of the Transcendentalist movement.

Major Contributors of Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism has been influenced by many people from its founding years to today. However, there are a few people that stand out in their contributions to the philosophy. Below we detail each of these main contributors and how they have shaped transcendentalist thought.

  • Orestes Brownson (1803-1876): As an early Transcendentalist, Brownson was an activist for the working class. He valued the social equality of Transcendentalism and the brotherhood that was created.

  • George Ripley (1802-1880): As a friend of Brownson, Ripley worked for social reform and was known as a journalist for Transcendentalist thought. Also, he was the promoter of the utopian community Brook Farm in Massachusetts. It served as an experiment for socialist ideas and simple living, but ultimately ended after six years.

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882): Emerson was most well-known for leading the Transcendentalism movement. His many essays and writings emphasize the possibility of transcendence through individual insight and intuition. Emerson propelled the shift in Transcendentalist thought towards an individual journey rather than active participation in social reform — this belief was supported by Thoreau and Margaret Fuller.

  • Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862): Thoreau was also an influential writer of the time, and he stressed individual responsibility and attention to one’s conscience. Also, he is known for his respect for simple living and nature.

  • Margaret Fuller (1810-1850): Known for her work as an advocate for women’s rights, Fuller was one of the activist Transcendentalists that fought for social reform. Her writing and efforts had a lasting influence on Transcendentalist thought and other movements during the time.

Impact of Transcendentalism on the Modern World

Because of its themes of respect for nature and the simple life, Transcendentalism played a major role in artistic expression during its time. Exemplified by artists in the Hudson River School, a group formed in 1825, there was an artistic emphasis on the beauty of the American landscape and of one’s natural surroundings.

As an influential philosophy of literature, Transcendentalism can be seen in many works produced during the Romantic movement. Authors such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman are particularly known for having Transcendentalist themes in their writing.

There are speculations about Transcendentalism's influence on American law in terms of reasoning. Some suggest that many of Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr.’s rulings had themes of self-reliance and individual freedom that align with this philosophy. Whether or not this is true, Transcendentalism remains a prevalent mentality even in today’s world.

Key Takeaways from Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism contends some notable values as a way of life. Listed below are some most important themes in Transcendentalist thought that can be applied to the modern world.

  1. Question what is commonly accepted: With so much mainstream content and public opinion being pushed to the forefront of media, it’s hard to remember your own views and beliefs. In the face of today’s world, be skeptical of what you readily accept as “real” and question the things you believe to exercise your individuality.

  2. Return to self-achieved knowledge: With a world addicted to the Internet, it’s rare to learn about something without being influenced by the media. Take from the teachings of the Transcendentalists and learn with the goal of gaining unbiased knowledge.

  3. Learn for the sake of learning: Modern education places an emphasis on conformity and performance. With transcendentalist thought in mind, learning should be focused on gaining knowledge rather than performance. Embrace learning without constraint or external pressure.

  4. Remember the beauty of nature: Transcendentalism holds an idealistic view of the surrounding world. Find peace of mind by going for a walk or just observing nature, and recenter yourself.


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