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The other day I noticed an interesting and often-overlooked detail of Plato’s Republic. The entire conversation which it records took place in the midst of an all-night festival dedicated to Bendis, the Thracian Artemis, a goddess associated with the Moon and the sister of Apollo.
Imagine, if you will, the goings on. Socrates, the protagonist of the Republic, walks 10 miles from Athens to the port of Piraeus, where the newly established festival in honor of Bendis takes place. First there are opening ceremonies and rituals, then a procession. At night there is a mysterious horse race where riders carry torches. Finally, the crowds disperse to enjoy a night-long festival, the details of which we know little.
Between the afternoon and evening festivities, Socrates runs into some acquaintances, who invite him to their nearby house for conversation. There they carry on into the late hours or morning in conversing about the nature of Justice. Meanwhile, all around them, the religious festival to Bendis is taking place. Surely this must have created a unique ambient energy that charged and inspired the conversation. (Anyone who has experienced such an all-night festival will understand this, and those who have not can easily imagine it.)
My musing (no pun intended) on all this produced something like a personal epiphany: I suddenly realized how, while Plato is so often considered the ‘son of Apollo,’ that is, a philosopher of the intellectual or solar aspect of the psyche, he is also a philosopher of the lunar, feminine element — and arguably no less so.
Indeed, it is testimony to the vice-grip that rationalism has had on philosophy during the last 150 years that Plato’s strong feminine aspect is not readily apparent. In earlier centuries this was not always so. The ‘other’ Plato — the mystic, the philosopher of love and Beauty, of poetry and music — was known and celebrated. Thus we have the vast European esoteric tradition which owes so much to Plato, the love philosophy of the pivotal Renaissance Platonist, Marsilio Ficino, and the Platonic/Neoplatonic great chain of being central to Medieval art and culture.
Academic philosophers for the last century-and-a-half have explored every nuance of Plato’s rationalism. Indeed, this has reached the point where the productions are too often sterile exercises in vanity and mere scholasticism. To ignore Plato’s lunar side and his love mysticism, is to remove the heart and soul of his philosophy — indeed to deny the very meaning of his word philosophia, love of Wisdom.
The place to begin, of course, is with Plato’s Symposium, Plato’s great work on love. An indication of the extent of modern neglect of this dialogue is that the last book on the topic that even tried to be definitive was written in 1963 (Thomas Gould, Platonic Love, Oxford). Meanwhile dozens, if not hundreds of books have appeared since then treating of Plato’s more rationalistic dialogues, exploring in excessive detail every part and nuance of them.
We are indeed living in a hyper-rationalistic age. A good term to describe this is orthocentrism — the oxymoronic nature of which describes precisely the issue: a rationalistic bias which removes us from our center, assuring disharmony, conflict, incompleteness, and, in the end, untruth.
Of course, it may be objected that the opposite error can occur — to be too mystical, to intuitive, not rational enough. Let us not forever operate at the level of excess, reaction, and counter-reaction. We must have both: rationalism and mysticism, Apollo and Artemis.
But we must not imagine that Plato, the wisest of the Greeks, was oblivious to this. Let us gain a new understanding of Plato as a holy (whole, holistic) philosopher.
How better to conclude than with verse? Here is a beautiful specimen of Platonic cosmic love poetry by the Florentine, Girolamo Benivieni (1453—1542; J. B. Fletcher, transl.)
In Primal Good flows to the world of sense;
When it had birth; and whence;
How moves the heavens, refines the soul, gives laws
To all; in men’s hearts taking residence,
With what arms keen and ready in resource,
It is the gracious force
Which mortal minds from earth to heaven draws;
How it may light, warm, burn; and what the cause
One love may earthward bend, one heavenward bear,
A third sustain midway ‘twixt earth and heaven …
Many know that the noble and estimable Thomas Taylor published the first English-language edition of Plato’s complete works in 1804. Although Taylor suffered poverty and obscurity in his day, his name will live on — if for no other reason than due to the influence of his work on English and American Transcendentalism. Thus, while John Stuart Mill and other British intellectuals severely criticized Taylor’s translations as, among other things, overly influenced by Neoplatonism, Ralph Waldo Emerson praised them.
However the name of another translator, Harry Spens (c. 1714–1787; sometimes listed as Henry Spens), remains obscure to this day. Here we aim to set the record straight and give Spens due credit as the first to translate Plato’s Republic into English in 1763.
The following are excerpts taken from the Introduction which Richard Garnett attached to his edition of Spens’ translation, reprinted several times from 1906 to 1922.
“That service to Plato … is no sure passport to immortality is evinced by the complete oblivion which has overtaken the translation of Plato’s Republic, by Dr. Harry Spens, although its priority to all other English translations, had it no other claim, should have kept it in remembrance. Published in 1763 at the Press of the University of Glasgow, by Foulis, the most eminent Scotch printer of the age, and dedicated to the Prime Minister, it appears to have attracted no notice from contemporaries, and has never been reprinted until now….
“Spens, it appears, was the son of James Spens, Writer to the Signet, and was born in 1713 or 1714 at Kirkton, Alves, Elginshire, where his father possessed a landed estate which had been in the family for generations, which he transmitted to his son. Spens was educated at King’s College and the University, Aberdeen, where he graduated M.A. in 1730. He was licensed to preach in 1738, was ordained minister of Wemyss, Fifeshire, in 1744, and received the degree of D.D. from the University of Aberdeen in 1761. In 1771 he married Anne Duncan. On December 29, 1779, he was installed Professor of Divinity in St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, and on May 25, 1780, received the high distinction of being elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland….
“On the whole, Spens’s version should not be lightly esteemed. It is clearly the work of a scholar and a man of considerable literary ability, who might have rivalled his successors if the standard of his age had been higher, and if he had possessed the apparatus criticus at their disposal. They had magnificent libraries at their command, which gave access to a mass of Platonic literature which did not exist in his day. His labours suffer much in comparison by the absence of the illuminating comment which imparts such zest to the versions of Davies  and of Jowett [1871, 1875, 1892]. This arises in great measure from their special attention to the needs of students, while Spens considers only the general reader, who, by a pleasing fiction, was supposed to be able to read Plato without note or comment.
“[In a] long disquisition upon Plato which Spens has prefixed to his translation … he deplores the decay of the taste for ancient literature, and agrees with almost all contemporary writers in lamenting the luxury of the age, and the universal propensity to read for mere amusement. The perusal of the Republic, he deems, may allure the thoughtless reader: ‘It is handled in an elegant manner, and many things collateral and in connection with the principal subject are most delicately touched; so that the reader is perpetually delighted with the variety of the matter the beauty of the illustrations, the union of the whole, and, in particular, with that genuine air of real life which everywhere appears.’ … The dedication to Lord Bute, exempt from servility as it is, would not at that juncture recommend it to any but North Britons, and it may probably have been little heard of south of the Tweed. It merited a better fate as the first English translation, as a courageous undertaking carried out with exemplary diligence; and also from the amiable character of the translator. He does not say how long his work had occupied him, but intimates that be had used no other translator or commentator than Ficinus.”
Taylor’s translation of Republic borrowed liberally from Spens’ version. Taylor listed Floyer Sydenham, who had contributed nine translations to the Works, alongside his own name on the title page. Spens, however, was given only a brief mention in the Introduction:
Of the translation of the Republic by Dr. Spens, it is necessary to observe, that a considerable part of it is very faithfully executed; but that in the more abstruse parts it is inaccurate; and that it every where abounds with Scotticisms which offend an English ear, and vulgarisms which are no less disgraceful to the translator than disgusting to the reader. Suffice it therefore to say of this version, that I have adopted it wherever I found it could with propriety be adopted, and given my own translation where it was otherwise. (Taylor & Sydenham, 1804, vol. 1, p. 2)
In retrospect, Taylor’s allusion to offensive “Scotticisms” is amusing. (One almost expects to find words like gang and auld!) What Taylor found so vulgar or offensive readers will have to determine for themselves. Without judging Taylor too harshly on this count, we may observe the irony of comments made by Henry Davis in the Preface to his own 1849 translation of Republic:
It will be found strikingly to differ from the uncouth, obscure, un-English, and often extremely erroneous version of Taylor, — the only English dress in which this great philosopher has till now appeared. (Davis, 1849, Preface; italics added)
Was Davis was really unaware of the Spens version of 1743? In any case, just as Taylor had relied heavily on Spens’ earlier version, Davis often retained or made only slight changes to Taylor’s. No doubt Davis and Taylor made important substantive changes; but the fact remains that in both cases a considerable amount of material was recycled from the earlier translation.
To give an example, the following shows the concluding paragraph of Republic (10.621c-d) in each version.
“But if the company will be persuaded by me, accounting the soul immortal, and able to bear all evil and all good, we shall always hold the road which leads above. And justice with prudence we shall by all means pursue in order that we may be friends both to ourselves and to the Gods, both whilst we remain here, and when we receive its rewards, like victors assembled together; and, we shall both here, and in that thousand years’ journey we have described, enjoy a happy life.” (Spens [repr. 1922], p. 348)
“But if the company will be persuaded by me; considering the soul to be immortal, and able to bear all evil, and all good, we shall always persevere in the road which leads above; and shall by all means pursue justice in conjunction with prudence, in order that we may be friends both to ourselves, and to the Gods, both whilst we remain here, and when we receive its rewards, like victors assembled together; and we shall, both here, and in that journey of a thousand years which we have described, enjoy a happy life.” (Taylor & Sydenham, p. 478)
“But if the company will be persuaded by me; considering the soul to be immortal, and able to bear all evil and good, we shall always persevere in the road which leads upwards, and shall by all means pursue justice in unison with prudence, that so we may be friends both to ourselves and the gods, both whilst we remain here, and when we afterwards receive its rewards, like victors assembled together; and so, both here, and in that journey of a thousand years, which we have described, we shall be happy.” (Davis, p. 312)
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has an entry for Spens, but I am unfortunately unable to access it and cannot say how much information it contains.
Concerning Taylor, while he was not the first to translate the Republic into English, his other accomplishments were great and many, and perhaps another time we shall be able to remark upon them.
References & Links
Axon, William E. A. Thomas Taylor, the Platonist. London, 1890.
Davis, Henry. The Republic, Timaeus and Critias. London, 1849. Vol. 2 of Henry Cary, Henry Davis, George Burges, The Works of Plato, 6 vols. (Bohn’s Classical Library.) London, 1848–1854.
Evans, Frank B., III. Platonic Scholarship in Eighteenth-Century England. Modern Philology, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Nov., 1943), pp. 103–110.
Prometheus Trust. Thomas Taylor: The English Platonist. < http://www.prometheustrust.co.uk/html/thomas_taylor.html >. Accessed 26 January 2014.
Taylor, Thomas; Sydenham, Floyer. The Works of Plato. 5 vols. Vol. 1. The First Alcibiades, The Republic. London, 1804.
No act of mine is done without prayer. Man is a fallible being. He can never be sure of his steps.
~ Gandhi (Young India, 25 Sept 1924, p. 313)
As food is necessary for the body, prayer is necessary for the soul. A man may be able to do without food for a number of days … but, believing in God, man cannot, should not live a moment without prayer.
~ Gandhi (Young India, 15 Dec 1927, p. 424)
Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal.
~ Gandhi (Autobiography, p. 51)
I can give my own testimony and say that a heartfelt prayer is undoubtedly the most potent instrument that man possesses for overcoming cowardice and all other bad old habits.
~ Gandhi (Young India, 20 Dec 1928, p. 420)
Not until we have reduced ourselves to nothingness can we conquer the evil in us. God demands nothing less than complete self-surrender as the price for the only real freedom that is worth having. And when a man thus loses himself, he immediately finds himself in the service of all that lives. It becomes his delight and his recreation. He is a new man, never weary of spending himself in the service of God’s creation.
~ Gandhi (Young India, 20 Dec 1928, p. 420)
There is an eternal struggle raging in man’s breast between the powers of darkness and of light, and he who has not the sheet-anchor of prayer to rely upon will be a victim to the powers of darkness. The man of prayer will be at peace with himself and with the whole world; the man who goes about the affairs of the world without a prayerful heart will be miserable and will make the world also miserable.
~ Gandhi (Young India, 23 Jan 1930, p. 26)
Prayer is the only means of bringing about orderliness and peace and repose in our daily acts…. Take care of the vital thing and other things will take care of themselves. Rectify one angle of a square, and the other angles will be automatically right.
~ Gandhi (Young India, 23 Jan 1930, p. 26)
It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.
~ Gandhi (Young India, 23 Jan 1930, p. 25)
Prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening.
~ Gandhi (Young India, 23 Jan 1930, p. 25)
I am giving you a bit of my experience and that of my companions when I say that he who had experienced the magic of prayer may do without food for days together, but not a single moment without prayer. For without prayer there is no inward peace.
~ Gandhi (Young India, 23 Jan 1930, p. 25)
Let every one try and find that, as a result of daily prayer, he adds something new to his life, something with which nothing can be compared.
~ Gandhi (Young India, 24 Apr 1931, p. 274)
There are many who, whether from mental laziness or from having fallen into a bad habit, believe that God is and will help us unasked.
~ Gandhi (Harijan, 28 Apr 1946, p. 109)
Silent communion will help them to experience an undisturbed peace in the midst of turmoil, to curb anger and cultivate patience.
~ Gandhi (Harijan, 28 Apr 1946, p. 109)
It should be the general rule that prayers must not be delayed for anybody on earth.
~ Gandhi (Harijan, 5 May 1946, p. 113)
True meditation consists in closing the eyes and ears of the mind to all else except the object of one’s devotion. Hence the closing of eyes during prayers is an aid to such concentration. Man’s conception of God is naturally limited. Each one has, therefore, to think of Him as best appeals to him, provided that the conception is pure and uplifting.
~ Gandhi (Harijan, 18 Apr 1946, p. 265)
Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.
~ Gandhi (Harijan, 14 Apr 1946, p. 80)
When the mind is completely filled with His spirit, one cannot harbour ill-will or hatred towards anyone and, reciprocally, the enemy will shed his enmity and become a friend. It is not my claim that I have succeeded in converting enemies into friends, but in numerous cases it has been my experience that, when the mind is filled with His peace, all hatred ceases.
~ Gandhi (Harijan, 28 Apr 1946, p. 109)
God answers prayer in His own way, not ours. His ways are different from the ways of mortals. Hence they are inscrutable. Prayer presupposes faith. No prayer goes in vain.
~ Gandhi (Harijan, 29 Jun 1946, p. 209)
Source: The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi: Encyclopedia of Gandhi’s Thoughts. Compiled & Edited by R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao. Ahmedabad, 1967.
Autobiography = An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth: M. K. Gandhi. Translated from Gujarati by Mahadev Desai. Ahmedabad: 1927 (vol. 1), 1929 (vol. 2); edition used: 1959.
Young India = Young India (1919–1932). English-language periodical; published bi-weekly from Bombay under Gandhi’s supervision from May 7, 1919; weekly from Ahmedabad with Gandhi as editor from October 8, 1919.
Harijan = Harijan (1933–1956). English-language weekly journal founded by Gandhi; published in Poona from 1942; suspended publication in 1940 during the “Individual Satyagraha”; resumed in January 1942, but stopped appearing during the Quit India Struggle; reappeared in 1946.
Bottom line: The core tenets of American Transcendentalism are that: (1) human beings (you) have a higher, spiritual nature; (2) life has definite moral meaning; (3) Nature can help connect us with God and with our own higher nature; and (4) we have supra-rational forms of knowledge: intuition, Conscience, higher Reason (noesis), inspiration, and creative imagination. Transcendentalism owes much more to the Western intellectual tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.) than to Eastern religions; it is important to understand this in order to appreciate the vital significance Transcendentalists attached to intellectual and moral self-culture. (Just walking around in the woods is not Transcendentalism!) Transcendentalism is compatible with Christianity, and there were in fact many Christian Transcendentalists.
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. Also, part of my motivation is the belief that, when your generation or a later one is ready to do so, it will find in the writings of the American Transcendentalists a well-developed ideology for changing the present corporatist/globalist status quo.
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, revisionist, 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 higher 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. At the most general level, transcendentalism supposes that human beings do have a higher nature (see above).
Technically, there is an important distinction between the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendent’ (although in practice they are sometimes used interchangeably). ‘Transcendent’ is a broad term that can mean almost anything higher or above (e.g., God, spirituality, etc.). ‘Transcendental’ refers to the fact that, when we, say, look out and perceive the world, our actual mental experience is being filtered or conditioned. By analogy, if we watch television, all we see are the images on the screen — not the inner circuitry of the television set that produces the images. The part of ourselves that filters, conditions, and produces of our mental experience is, arguably, more our ‘real self’ than our experience itself — this could be called our transcendental nature or transcendental apparatus. What it actually is, however, is a mystery, since we don’t experience it.
On the other hand, ‘transcendental’ could also be understood merely as an adjectival form of the word ‘transcendent’. Thus to some extent the two terms are hopelessly confounded and we cannot insist too strongly on a definite or consistent definition.
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 and the Greek tradition (Emerson tutored in Greek; Thoreau translated Aeschylus!) 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).
One important part of this is the Platonic notion of innate ideas. Locke denied that human beings have innate ideas (tabula rasa), and his view dominated Enlightenment-era thinking. Kant, however, thoroughly disproved Locke: our minds are so constructed as to see reality only in terms of pre-existing categories, rules, principles, and relationships. For example, we automatically see the world in moral terms, e.g., constantly evaluating ourselves, other people, and events as good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust; it’s innate, part of our nature.
From this it’s just a short step to Emerson’s concept of genius and art (see Emerson’s essays, ‘Self-Reliance‘, ‘Plato‘, and ‘Shakespeare‘): Each of us has the full repertoire of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic abilities characteristic of our species. For example, each person can look at a great work of art or wonder of nature and experience a sense of profound beauty or awe. We are all, in short, geniuses by nature. It’s just a question of accessing our latent abilities. Any thought or insight that any great person has ever had, you can have too! You have all the innate equipment necessary. What makes great creative geniuses different is only that they are better able to access and communicate these innate ideas.
This is an immensely important concept, and it leads to an new vision of what human society can and should be: a community of divine individuals (“gods in ruins”, as Emerson put it), who are helping each other towards self-realization. Sometimes, because of Thoreau’s reclusive reputation and Emerson’s essay, ‘Self Reliance’ (or, rather, its title), people get the impression that Transcendentalism was only about individualism, and that it denigrated society. But, as explained there, that isn’t so. Note that Transcendentalism itself only developed within a community of like-minded individuals.
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. One implication of self-reliance is that you must take the initiative in developing your soul: your moral and intellectual nature. A representative example of this is the book on self-culture by James Freeman Clarke. Modern self-help/pop-psychology literature, lacking a moral focus, is greatly inferior to Transcendentalist writings on self-culture.
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 the history of Western civilization 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 Transcendentalism will again come to the cultural forefront eventually. Indeed, it may be necessary if modern culture is to avoid worsening crises.
Emerson and Thoreau are literally our ‘tribal’ ancestors, speaking to us with inspired wisdom for the preservation, advancement, and evolution of our culture.
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. With 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!
11. A frequent criticism of American Transcendentalism is that it lacks a theory of evil: a nice philosophy for sunny days, not much help with life’s crosses and tempests.
12. Emerson resigned his post as a Christian minister over doctrinal issues, but arguably remained what might be called culturally Christian. There were many Christian transcendentalists (e.g., Theodore Parker, Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry). Orestes Brownson (and some others) eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.
An excellent book about Transcendentalism written by a Transcendentalist is O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876). I also recommend the chapter by Howe (2009) shown in the references below.
Here is a related paper on materialist vs. transcendentalist values in modern higher education.
- Channing, William Ellery. Self-Culture (1838), On War (1839)
- Clarke, James Freeman. Self-Culture by Reading and Books (1880)
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature (1836), The American Scholar (1837), Self-Reliance (1841), Character (1841), Wealth (1860)
- Frothingham, Octavius B. Transcendentalism in New England (1876)
- Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (1854), Life Without Principle (1863)
- The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (online, with search engine)
- American Transcendentalism
- American Transcendentalism (Washington State)
- Perspectives on American Literature – Transcendentalism
- Overview of American Transcendentalism – Martin Bickman
- Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self. Ch. 7, The Platonic Quest in New England, pp. 189–211. Oxford University Press, 2009 (orig. 1997). (An earlier version appeared as: Daniel Walker Howe, The Cambridge Platonists of Old England and the Cambridge Platonists of New England, Church History Vol. 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 470–485.)
- 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. Transcendentalist Writings for the Occupy Movement. 2013.
- Uebersax, John S. What is Materialism? What is Idealism? 2014.
- Wayne, Tiffany K. Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism. Infobase Publishing, 2009.