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I’m taking pity on the many college students around the world who are struggling with the obligatory English term paper on American Transcendentalism as the academic quarter/semester closes.
Transcendentalism is intriguing, yet seemingly incomprehensible. Actually, it isn’t incomprehensible at all. The problem is that its ideas are so common-sense that they conflict with the confused principles and assumptions of modern culture and its brainwashing. Add to that the fact that the academic world is particularly confused, being lost in a fantasy world of relativism and materialism.
In other words, the irony is that Transcendentalism as taught and written about today is presented through the lens of the very materialism that it opposed! The inevitable result is a selective, distorted, and confused picture. Here then are several essential facts about Transcendentalism that few people today (perhaps your instructor included) seldom know.
1. Transcendentalism was an explicit reaction against the modern rationalism of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The effect of these rationalist philosophies was to deny that human beings had innate knowledge and Higher Reason (or Conscience), and that people are made in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ In short, rationalism led to materialism, and loss of ‘transcendent’ values in society.
2. The rationalist philosophy came just at the time of the Industrial Revolution. In a sense, modern rationalism, by denying transcendent values, justified reducing society to a vast machine, a system of factories and banks where man is nothing but a cog in a machine. In short, by claiming that man is merely a materialistic creature (i.e., virtually a machine himself), rationalism led to all the abuses of an radically technological and economic society. The problems we see today began around 1790 in Europe and America. The Transcendentalists (and their allies, the Romanticists) understood this problem and tried to counter it.
3. This brings us to what “transcendental” means. In fact, it has a whole range of meanings – it’s something of an umbrella term; nobody officially defined it — it just caught on. At the most general level, transcendentalism supposes that human beings do have a higher nature (see above).
4. Historically, the term was borrowed from the transcendental philosophy of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant developed his philosophy in opposition to the British empiricists (Locke, Hume). Kant’s philosophy generated a great deal excitement, first in Europe. In particular, two new transcendentalist movements — one in France (Victor Cousin) and one in England (Coleridge and Wordsworth) — emerged. These movements were broadly aligned with the spirit of Kant (e.g.,. rejection of Locke), but were distinct in their ideas. English transcendentalism was (1) more Platonic (see below), and (2) more Romantic.
American Transcendentalism was aware of Kant, but it was much more closely aligned with some of Kant’s German followers (e.g., Schelling), and English transcendentalism (e.g., Coleridge).
5. Most importantly, American Transcendentalism was a revival of the Platonic heritage of the Renaissance. Transcendentalism, especially that of Emerson, is heavily indebted to Platonism. Modern scholars have strangely lost sight of this. Instead, it became trendy in the 20th century to see Eastern (Indian and Persian) as dominant influences on American Transcendentalism. Eastern religion had a little effect, but nowhere near as much as Platonism. In short: Transcendentalism is a continuation and extension of a long-standing Western tradition in philosophy and religion (see below).
6. An example of the Platonist roots of American Transcendentalism is in the constant emphasis of the latter on self-development. The ancient principle, ‘know thyself’, is strongly emphasized. The main meaning of self-reliance (see Emerson’s essay) is that you must take charge of developing your soul: your moral and intellectual nature. A representative example of this is the book on self-culture by James Freeman Clarke.
7. Another major root of American Transcendentalism was New England Unitarianism. The wellspring of this influence was William Ellery Channing, a mentor of Emerson, and prominent teacher, minister, and lecturer at the time. Two of Channing’s more famous essays/speeches are Likeness to God and Self-Culture.
8. Another way of looking at American Transcendentalism is that it expresses what has been called the perennial philosophy — a set of core religious and philosophical ideas that crop up again and again across cultures and throughout history. These core principles include:
- The existence of an all-powerful and loving God
- Immortality of the human soul
- Human beings made in God’s image, and progress by becoming gradually more ‘divine’
- Human beings have higher cognitive powers: Wisdom, Conscience, Genius.
- Providence: God shapes and plans everything.
- Happiness comes from subordinating our own will (ego) to God’s will, putting us into a ‘flow’ state.
- And from moral development (virtue ethics)
- All reality (our souls and the natural world) are harmonized, because all are controlled by God’s will into a unity.
- Everything that does happen, happens for a reason. Life is a continuing moral lesson.
This perennial philosophy recurs throughout history as an antagonist to materialism. In modern times Locke and Hobbes express the materialist philosophy. In ancient times the Epicureans similarly advanced a materialist philosophy in contrast with the transcendent philosophies of Platonism and Stoicism.
So there is a kind of Hegelian dialectic (i.e., thesis–antithesis–synthesis process) in history between materialism and transcendentalism. For this reason, the principles of American Trasncendentalism will again come to the cultural forefront eventually. Indeed, it may be necessary if modern culture is to avoid worsening crises.
9. American Transcendentalism anticipated 20th century humanistic psychology (e.g., the theories of Abraham Maslow) and modern positive psychology. However it is more inclusive than either of these two in its recognition of man’s higher, transcendental nature: man’s spiritual, moral, philosophical, intellectual, and creative elements. The paradox (and failure) of modern positive psychology is precisely that it cannot extricate itself from its underpinnings in materialist/rationalist philosophy.
10. Wth these great ideas, why didn’t Transcendentalism continue as a major cultural force? Partly the answer has to do with the dialectical process referred to above. In the struggle between materialism and transcendentalism, things go back and forth, hopefully always working towards an improved synthesis (i.e., not so much a circular but a spiral process).
In addition, two specific factors contributed to a receding of American Transcendentalism. One was Darwinism, which dealt a tremendous blow to religious thought in the 19th century. Religious thinkers at that time simply weren’t able to understand that science and religion are compatible. People began to doubt the validity of religion and to resign themselves to the unappealing possibility that we are nothing but intelligent apes. The second blow, perhaps much greater, was the American Civil War. Besides disrupting American society and culture generally, the Civil War represented a triumph of a newly emerging materialistic progressivism over the more spiritual and refined Transcendentalism (which sought progress by reforming man’s soul, not civil institutions). The high ideals of the Transcendental movement were co-opted by militant reformers, and this problem is still with us. Modern progressives see themselves as the inheritors of Transcendentalist Idealism, but are in reality radically materialistic in values and methods!
An excellent book about Transcendentalism written by a Transcendentalist is O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876).
Concerning Transcendentalism and the values of the Occupy Movement, see here.
Here is a related paper on materialist vs. transcendentalist values in modern higher education.
Bottom line: Emerson and Thoreau are like our tribal ancestors, speaking to us from the past with inspired ideas for the transformation of our culture.
- William Ellery Channing, Self-Culture (1838), On War (1839)
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836), The American Scholar (1837), Self-Reliance (1841), Character (1841), Wealth (1860)
- O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876)
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), Life Without Principle (1863)
- American Transcendentalism
- American Transcendentalism (Washington State)
- Perspectives on American Literature – Transcendentalism
- Overview of American Transcendentalism – Martin Bickman
- The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (online, with search engine)
- Parrington, Vernon L. Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 2, Book 3, Part 3 (The Transcendental Mind, Chapters 1-5). New York: Harcourt Brace And Co., 1927.
- Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. University of California Press, 1995.
- Uebersax, John S. What is Materialism? What is Idealism? Accessed 14 December 2014 from http://www.john-uebersax.com .
- Wayne, Tiffany K. Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism. Infobase Publishing, 2009.
1st draft. Sorry for typos.
Originally posted on Christian Gnosis:
The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation
(A summary appears following the article.)
We address here what can be termed the monomyth of fall and salvation. By monomyth we mean a core myth that is expressed in different forms by different cultures. By fall and salvation here we do not mean so much the ultimate eternal destiny of a soul, but a cycle which recurs frequently within ones life — perhaps even on a daily basis.
We borrow the term monomyth from the writings of the noted mythographer, Joseph Campbell. Campbell (1949) explored in detail a different, but related and somewhat overlapping monomyth, which we might call the heroic quest. The heroic myth somewhat neglects the question of why the hero needs to go on a quest to begin with; it’s as though the quest is the result of someone else’s difficulties or negligence. The fall and salvation monomyth…
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Oxbridge University Press is pleased to announce our new Shakespeare Today® series. Our aim is to eliminate all the awkward and pretentious Elizabethan English that makes the bard virtually impossible for modern college students, especially those who’ve been educated in American secondary schools, to read. After all, did Shakespeare’s original groundling Globe Theater hoi polloi audience — London’s fishmongers, shop-keepers, and chimney-sweeps — need dictionaries to look up all those weird words? Did they have to ponder over the complicated sentence constructions? No, it was ordinary language to them. We think it’s in the true spirit of Shakespeare to translate his works into a modern vernacular that today’s semi-literate readers can relate to.
Please enjoy the following sample from our edition of Hamlet, which shows Shakespeare’s original wording followed by our clear, modernized version:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Should I just stick my head in an oven?
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind
I mean, is it better, brainwise,
to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
to put up with the bullets and missiles of a hypothetical personified power that unpredictably determines events,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?
Or instead to get a bunch of weapons and fight back like Rambo?
To die: to sleep; no more;
Death is sleep.
And, by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache
A sleep where we end acute symptoms of coronary artery disease,
and the thousand natural shocks
and the large number — probably not less than 800 (or else we’d say ‘hundreds’), or more than 1999 (i.e., ‘thousands’), and not astronomical (e.g., ‘millions)’ — of annoyances
that flesh is heir to,
that our bodies are genetically programmed for.
’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.
To die, to sleep;
Recap: death is sleep.
To sleep: perchance to dream:
Wait a second — when you sleep, you dream.
Ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
Who knows what lousy dreams there are
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
once we’ve wriggled out of our skin like a snake or frog?
Must give us pause.
Better slow down, dude.
There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life;
That’s why we take all this bullsh*t.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
For who’d put up with letting time first spank and then look down its nose at us,
the oppressor’s wrong,
the proud man’s contumely.
being harangued by a**holes,
the pangs of dispriz’d love,
feeling crappy because your girlfriend or boyfriend dumps you,
the insolence of office,
diplomats who double-park but don’t get tickets,
the law’s delay,
cops never being there when you need them,
and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes,
and bad people pushing you around, no matter how many patience points you’ve earned,
When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?
when he could make it all go away with an awl, or a stiletto-shaped steel hairpin, or, by extension, any dagger or dagger-like object?
Who would fardels bear,
Who’d carry piles of sticks around on their backs,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
To perspire and make pig-like noises when really tired?
But that the dread of something after death,
If we didn’t get nauseous thinking how it could actually be worse
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns,
beyond the boundaries of that place for which Travelocity only sells one-way tickets?
puzzles the will,
It makes us give up and look for the answers at the bottom of the page,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?
And ask like “Why fly to Rio, only to get kidnapped there or worse?”
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
Thus, either (1) a socially-conditioned mental function that inhibits expression of natural instincts, or (2) an innate moral faculty which some associate with the ‘image and likeness’ of God, makes us all chicken.
And thus the native hue of resolution
And the red face we get, like an indigenous person, when we’re fired up and rarin’ to go
is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
is plastered over the sick look of someone who thinks too much.
The fascist, Wall Street duopoly that controls Washington would be broken were even one local Democrat action group to issue a statement saying, “This election we will vote en masse for the Green Party candidate in protest, even if that means a Republican will win.” Or were a Republican group to break ranks and vote Libertarian.
Until that happens, until someone, somewhere calls the bluff of the two parties, as long as the status quo parties can rely on people voting against the other party, no matter how rotten the candidate of ones own party is, nothing will change.
If the Democrats or Republicans were to lose even a single seat in the House or Senate because of third-party protest votes, they would immediately begin changing their platforms to win back voters.
Call their bluff. There is no meaningful difference between a Wall Street Republican and a Wall Street Democrat. Stop fooling yourself into thinking that you have to vote for one to prevent the other from winning!