Transcendental Ideas: Definitions

An Overview of American Transcendentalism (1820-1860)

Transcendentalism dominated the thinking of the American Renaissance, the period before the Civil War where new literary and philosophical forms flourished, and its resonances reverberated through American life well into the 20th century. In one way or another our most creative minds were drawn into its thrall, attracted not only to its practicable messages of confident self-identity, spiritual progress and social justice, but also by its aesthetics, which celebrated, in landscape and mindscape, the immense grandeur of the American soul. The basic tenets are: that the spark of divinity lies within man; that everything in the world is a microcosm of existence; that the individual soul is identical to the world soul, or Over-Soul, as Emerson called it. This belief in the Inner Light led to an emphasis on the authority of the Self—to Walt Whitman's I, to the Emersonian doctrine of Self-Reliance, to Thoreau's civil disobedience, and to the Utopian communities at Brook Farm and Fruitlands. By meditation, by communing with nature, through work and art, man could transcend his senses—reach a heightened state of intuition—and attain a true understanding of beauty and goodness and truth.

*      Context and Premises: The Transcendentalists can be understood in one sense by their context—by what they were rebelling against, what they saw as the current situation and therefore as what they were trying to be different from. The Enlightenment had come to new rational conclusions about the natural world, mostly based on experimentation and logical thinking. The pendulum was swinging, and a more Romantic way of thinking—less rational, more intuitive, more in touch with the senses—was coming into vogue. Those new rational conclusions had raised important questions, but were no longer enough. Transcendentalism emphasized the following:

*            The intuitive faculty, instead of the rational or sensical, is the means for a conscious union of the individual psyche with the world psyche also known as the Oversoul, life-force, primer mover and God.

*            An individual is the spiritual center of the universe - and in an individual can be found the clue to nature, history and, ultimately, the cosmos itself. It is not a rejection of the existence of God, but a preference to explain an individual and the world in terms of an individual.

*            The structure of the universe literally duplicates the structure of the individual self - all knowledge, therefore, begins with self-knowledge. This is similar to Aristotle's dictum "know thyself."

*            Transcendentalists accepted the neo-Platonic conception of nature as a living mystery, full of signs - nature is symbolic.

*            The belief that individual virtue and happiness depend upon self-realization - this depends upon the reconciliation of two universal psychological tendencies: (a) the expansive or self-transcending tendency—a desire to embrace the whole world, to know and become one with the world; and (b) the contracting or self-asserting tendency—the desire to withdraw, remain unique and separate—an egotistical existence.

Note: Nineteenth Century American Transcendentalism is not a religion (in the traditional sense of the word); it is a pragmatic philosophy, a state of mind, and a form of spirituality. It is not a religion because it does not adhere to the three concepts common in major religions: a. a belief in a God; b. a belief in an afterlife (dualism); and c. a belief that this life has consequences on the next (if you're good in this life, you go to heaven in the next, etc.). Transcendentalism is monist; it does not reject an afterlife, but its emphasis is on this life.

Basic Tenets of American Transcendentalism:

Note: This list must not be considered to be a creed common to all transcendentalists. It is merely a grouping of certain important concepts shared by many of them.

  1. Transcendentalism, essentially, is a form of idealism.
  2. The transcendentalist "transcends" or rises above the lower animalistic impulses of life (animal drives) and moves from the rational to a spiritual realm.
  3. The human soul is part of the Oversoul or universal spirit (or "float" for Whitman) to which it and other souls return at death.
  4. Therefore, every individual is to be respected because everyone has a portion of that Oversoul (God).
  5. This Oversoul or Life Force or God can be found everywhere - travel to holy places is, therefore, not necessary.
    God can be found in both nature and human nature (Nature, Emerson stated, has spiritual manifestations).
  6. Jesus also had part of God in himself - he was divine as everyone is divine - except in that he lived an exemplary and transcendental life and made the best use of that Power which is within each one.
  7. "Miracle is monster." The miracles of the Bible are not to be regarded as important as they were to the people of the past. Miracles are all about us - the whole world is a miracle and the smallest creature is one. "A mouse is a miracle enough to stagger quintillions of infidels." - Whitman
  8. More important than a concern about the afterlife, should be a concern for this life - "the one thing in the world of value is the active soul." - Emerson
  9. Death is never to be feared, for at death the soul merely passes to the oversoul.
  10. Emphasis should be placed on the here and now. "Give me one world at a time." - Thoreau
  11. Evil is a negative - merely an absence of good. Light is more powerful than darkness because one ray of light penetrates the dark.
  12. Power is to be obtained by defying fate or predestination, which seem to work against humans, by exercising one's own spiritual and moral strength. Emphasis on self-reliance.
  13. Hence, the emphasis is placed on a human thinking.
  14. The transcendentalists see the necessity of examples of great leaders, writers, philosophers, and others, to show what an individual can become through thinking and action.
  15. It is foolish to worry about consistency, because what an intelligent person believes tomorrow, if he/she trusts oneself, tomorrow may be completely different from what that person thinks and believes today. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." - Emerson
  16. The unity of life and universe must be realized. There is a relationship between all things.
  17. One must have faith in intuition, for no church or creed can communicate truth.
  18. Reform must not be emphasized - true reform comes from within.

Reasons for the Rise of American Transcendentalism

There was no one precise "cause" for the beginning of Transcendentalism. According to Paul Boller, chance, coincidence and several independent events, thoughts and tendencies seemed to have converged in the 1830s in New England. Some of these were:

  1. The steady erosion of Calvinism.
  2. The progressive secularization of modern thought under the impact of science and technology.
  3. The emergence of a Unitarian intelligentsia with the means, leisure, and training to pursue literature and scholarship.
  4. The increasing insipidity and irrelevance of liberal religion to questing young minds - lack of involvement in women's rights and abolitionism.
  5. The intrusion of the machine into the New England garden and the disruption of the old order by the burgeoning industrialism.
  6. The impact of European ideas on Americans traveling abroad.
  7. The appearance of talented and energetic young people like Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau on the scene.
  8. The imperatives of logic itself for those who take ideas seriously - the impossibility, for instance, of accepting modern science without revising traditional religious views.

Important ideas from: Warren, Robert Penn, Cleanth Brooks, and R. W. B. Lewis. "A National Literature and Romantic Individualism." in Romanticism. eds. James Barbour and Thomas Quirk. NY: Garland, 1986, 3-24.

1. Transcendentalism was a philosophical, literary, social, and theological movement.

2. Its origin is traced to the relaxing of Puritan Calvinism into Unitarianism - a belief very much like Deism. From its early liberalism, Unitarianism developed, for some of the young intellectuals, into "a new orthodoxy of smug social conformity that denied the spiritual and emotional depths of experience - 'corpse-cold Unitarianism,' as Emerson was to call it." (11)

3. German and English Romanticism provided some inspiration towards the search for some deeper 'truth.'

4. "Transcendentalism represented a complex response to the democratization of American life, to the rise of science and the new technology, and to the new industrialism - to the whole question, in short, of the redefinition of the relation of man to nature and to other men that was being demanded by the course of history." (11-12)

5. Influences:

a. From Plato came the idealism according to which reality subsists beyond the appearances of the world. Plato also suggests that the world is an expression of spirit, or mind, which is sheer intelligibility and therefore good.

b. From Immanuel Kant came the notion of the 'native spontaneity of the human mind' against the passive conception of the 18th c. sensational theory (also known as the philosophy of empiricism of John Locke and David Hume; the concept that the mind begins as a tabula rasa and that all knowledge develops from sensation).

c. From Coleridge came the importance of wonder, of antirationalism, and the importance of individual consciousness.

d. From Puritanism came the ethical seriousness and the aspect of Jonathan Edwards that suggested that an individual can receive divine light immediately and directly.

6. "Transcendentalism was, at its core, a philosophy of naked individualism, aimed at the creation of the new American, the self-reliant man, complete and independent." (22)

7. "The achievement of the transcendentalists has a grandeur. They did confront, and helped define, the great issues of their time, and if they did not resolve those issues, we of the late twentieth century, who have not yet resolved them, are in no position to look down our noses at their effort." (23)

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: Early Nineteenth Century - American Transcendentalism: A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: