Transcendentalism Essay, Research Paper
Transcendentalism, in philosophy and nature, is the belief in a higher reality than found in sense experience or in a higher knowledge than achieved by human reason. Transcendentalism upholds the goodness of humanity, the glories of nature, and the importance of free individual expression. In addition, it is maintained that an awareness of reality, or a sense of truth, is reached through reasoning by intuition. Transcendentalism also holds that material objects do not have any real existence of their own. Rather, these objects are diffused aspects of God, the Over-Soul. In its most usage, transcendentalism refers to a literary and philosophical movement that developed in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. Two authors who were among the leaders of the movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whose works “Nature, “Self-Reliance, and “Walden” brought America to the forefront of the transcendentalist movement. Their ideas opposed the popular materialist views of life and voiced a desire for freedom of the individual from artificial restraints. They felt that if they explored nature thoroughly, they would come to know themselves and the universal truths better.
The concept of transcendentalism is clearly expressed in the essay “Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was a leader in the movement of transcendentalism and the first American author to influence European thought. His essay “Nature” tells of how one can gain insight and spiritual cleansing simply from experiencing nature. Emerson tells of how “in the woods is perpetual youth” and “in the woods we return to reason and faith.” These lines exemplify the very ideals of transcendentalism. They show the deep roots a person has in nature and how one can receive knowledge of their Over-Soul by honestly enjoying the outdoors and freeing oneself of previous evils. In the following lines, Emerson remarks, “Standing on the bare ground- my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball: I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.” These lines display the transcendentalist belief that purity and knowledge can be obtained from a union with and understanding of nature. Emerson also relates the concept of transcendentalism to human life in his essay, “Self-Reliance.” In this aptly named essay, Emerson grapples with another part of transcendentalism, the issue of “self-reliance.” He sees mankind as somewhat of a coward; that people never express their true selves. Emerson claims that humans are afraid to fail; they are pleased if successful, but are never happy with where and what they are. He expresses transcendentalist ideals by saying that a true person would be a non-conformist. Emerson puts this belief into words in the following lines: “There is a time in every mans education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil.” These words are the epitome of the ideals of transcendentalism, that one must celebrate the individual in order to find himself one with the universe. In religion, it was post-Unitarian and freethinking, and he articulated it in his “Divinity School Address. In the address, Emerson perceived religion as a tedious pursuit needed to obtain virtue in life. The controversy of Emerson’s thinking directly addressed the Christian Church. Jesus Christ in Emerson’s retrospection was a miraculous authority, but he asserted that the Christian Church erred by exaggerating the miracles of Jesus and the confinement of revelation. To Emerson, the religious aspect of transcendentalism was intended to deny past ways of significance and to discover new, perceptive approaches to God.
The distinguished author Henry David Thoreau made another significant glimpse into the core ideals of transcendentalism. Thoreau lived in the home of essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. His most honored and enjoyed work was the story, “Walden”, which gives a forthright statement of his reasons for embracing a contemplative and decidedly transcendentalist life living on the shore of Walden Pond. In “Walden, Thoreau explains why he chose the woods: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” Thoreau himself was quoted as saying, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” In “Walden”, the author describes the cardinal importance of nature in ones search of their soul. Thoreau chose to live in seclusion because he believed solitude was the best companion in order to know one s own self. In the essay, he felt that mankind cared too deeply for material possessions; “simplify!” he implored. Thoreau claimed that humans were “ruined by luxury and heedless expense” and that success is gained when one “advances confidently in the direction of his dreams”. Thoreau stressed the importance of the individual through the statement, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” His ideas were the foundation of transcendentalism, which include individualism, knowledge of nature, and the disposal of material belongings. Henry David Thoreau s continuous life theme was his struggle to survive in the world without selling out like he felt most of society had already done. From Thoreau s Civil Disobedience, six principles create a guide to life for someone who values the self and personal conscience above the group and collective rules. The first principles include the feeling to discern right from wrong by conscience than by simply following man-made laws, the feeling to fight for what is believed to be morally right, even if it involves self-sacrifice, the belief that there is no shame in being poor since virtue is not found in the accumulation of monetary wealth, the belief that self-respect is attained when personal opinion is formed based on conscience rather than external influence, the suggestion to look to a higher source than mankind for morality, and finally the belief that actions reveal true character. These six principles provide a revolutionary instruction manual for living and express expectations for humanity that are much higher than those expectations expressed by the government through the enactment of laws. This is not surprising since Thoreau was a transcendentalist. With this philosophical school of thought as his guide, he endeavored to live a life that transcended the law and looked to a higher substantial truth.
Transcendentalism was one of the most important movements of the 19th century. The theory embodied ideals that, if taken to heart, had the potential to create a better understanding of the soul. If a person could connect their individual soul with the universe, they could fulfill their potential in life. One achieved this through many different ways, ways that are explained and discussed in the three works mentioned before. Transcendentalism was a fundamental movement that was forever immortalized by innovative authors and works of literature.