Cultural Psychology

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What is American Transcendentalism?

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Bottom line. The core tenets of American Transcendentalism: (1) human beings have a higher, spiritual nature; (2) all people have common, innate Ideals (what things are True, Beautiful, Just, and Good?) and this is of vast importance for society; (3) life has definite moral meaning; (4) Nature can help connect us with God and with our own higher nature; and (5) we have supra-rational forms of knowledge: intuition, Conscience, higher Reason, inspiration, and creative imagination.  Transcendentalism is a development of the Western intellectual tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.), and places considerable emphasis on intellectual and moral self-culture.  (Just walking around in the woods is not Transcendentalism!)  Transcendentalism per se is compatible with Christianity, and there were in fact many Christian Transcendentalists.

I’ve written this because I take pity on the many college students who struggle each year with the obligatory English term paper on American Transcendentalism.  I’m also motivated by the belief that, when your generation or a later one is ready for the challenge, it will find in Transcendentalist writings a well-developed ideology for changing the corporatist/globalist/materialistic status quo.

Transcendentalism might seem virtually incomprehensible, but it’s actually very common-sense.  The difficulty is precisely that it conflicts with the received opinions and disordered thought patterns of modern culture.  In other words, the irony is that Transcendentalism, as taught and written about today in the modern academic establishment, is presented through the lens of the very materialistic values it opposed!  The inevitable result is a selective, distorted, revisionist, and confused picture. The aim here is so supply a more accurate portrayal.

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 were divine — made in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ In short, rationalism led to materialism and loss of higher values.

2. The rationalist philosophy came just at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Rationalism, by denying transcendent values, justified reducing society to a vast a system of factories and banks where man is nothing but a cog in a machine. By claiming that man is merely a material creature (i.e., a machine himself), rationalism led to all the abuses of a radically commercial society. The social problems of modernity we see today actually began around 1790 in Europe and America. The Transcendentalists (and their allies, the Romanticists) understood this problem and tried to counter it.

3. American Transcendentalism was a revival of the Platonic heritage of the Renaissance. Transcendentalism, Emerson, is heavily indebted to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and the Greek tradition generally (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) religions as dominant influences on American Transcendentalism. Eastern religions 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.

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, disproved Locke: he showed that 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.

Kant’s rejection of Locke’s rationalism generated considerable excitement in Europe and America.  American Transcendentalism took this new enthusiasm for Kant, and blended it with earlier, traditional Platonist and Neoplatonist concepts.  Plato, of course, is most famous for his Theory of Forms (Forms = Ideals).  For example, he postulated that all human beings have common, innate Ideals concerning the nature of the True, the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good.

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.

It also means that, despite the incessant, distorting propaganda of governments and the materialistic status quo, we all have an innate idea (or Ideal) of what a true, just, beautiful, and good society should and can be.  If we trusted our natural inclinations, and, trusted that everybody else has these same natural inclinations, we might produce a more natural, harmonious society.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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:

  1. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God
  2. Immortality of the human soul
  3. Human beings made in God’s image, and progress by becoming gradually more ‘divine’
  4. Human beings have higher cognitive powers: Wisdom, Conscience, Genius.
  5. Providence: God shapes and plans everything.
  6. Happiness comes from subordinating our own will (ego) to God’s will, putting us into a ‘flow’ state.
  7. And from moral development (virtue ethics)
  8. All reality (our souls and the natural world) are harmonized, because all are controlled by God’s will into a unity.
  9. 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., thesisantithesissynthesis 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.

7. 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.

8. 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!

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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 directly.  Emerson was content to simply accept our transcendental nature as part of Nature, generally.

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.

12. 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).

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.

Transcendentalist Works













The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation

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Christian Platonism

The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation

Gustave Dore - Banishment of Adam and Eve

(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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Written by John Uebersax

December 10, 2014 at 5:03 pm

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Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic

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IN a series of articles I’ve proposed that we should devote more effort to understanding Plato’s Republic as a psychological allegory. The table below summarizes interpretations of key elements of the Republic. The basic reasoning behind these, as previously described, is as follows:

  1. The Republic is mainly a work on individual psychology, morals, and religion. It is also a practical work, in that Plato aims to help readers advance in these areas. We agree with Hoerber (1944), Guthrie (1986), Waterfield (1993), Annas (1999), Blössner (2007) and others who suggest that any interests Plato may have had in political science are subordinate to these greater concerns of his. As Socrates states explicitly in 2.368d–369a and reminds of us frequently, the ideal city is presented as a conceptual tool that enables us to better understand the ‘politics’ our interior life.
  1. Plato succeeds in this because the human psyche can, in fact, be accurately likened to a commonwealth of citizens (the city-soul analogy). Modern psychology has confirmed this seminal insight of Plato. Psychic pluralism is recognized by dozens of modern personality theories (for reviews see Rowan, 1990 and Lester, 2010; see also Carter, 2008). Different theories give different names for these inner ‘citizens’: subselves, subpersonalities, complexes, schemas, ego states, potential selves, etc.; but for convenience we may select the term sub-ego as roughly meaning any or all of these things.
  1. We have a separate sub-ego associated with, at the very least, every one of our social roles, personal relationships, jobs, affiliations, projects, goals, hopes, plans, self-images, appetites and desires, passions and emotions, and so on. And these are only our conscious sub-egos. Nobody knows how many more ‘people’ there are within us operating at a sub- or unconscious level. Our psyche, therefore, may easily contain hundreds or thousands of autonomous or semi-autonomous sub-egos of varying complexity, each vying to attain its interests.
  1. This commonwealth of the psyche — psychopolis — can be well or poorly governed, congenial or conflict-ridden, integrated or fragmented, harmonious or discordant (see e.g., Lester pp. 55−62, 77−80, 90f., 151f.; Rowan pp. 86, 89f. 92f., 200−206, 211−215). Plato’s aim in the Republic is to instruct us how to achieve a well-governed, harmonious psyche by a moral regimen he terms philosophia, the love of Wisdom.
  1. A major and distinctive feature of the Platonic system is that ethics and epistemology are inseparable. In a poorly integrated and conflicted soul-city, each sub-ego seeks only its own narrow interests. In a well-governed and integrated soul-city, each sub-ego looks to the good of all, as well as to its own interests. For example, in a vicious soul-city, a money-seeking sub-ego might seek to acquire wealth by questionable means, putting it into conflict with other sub-egos. Psychic harmony and integration result when sub-egos consult the innate moral sense (moral noesis; vision of the Good) and moderate their activity accordingly.
  1. The soul-city analogy supplies Plato with a metaphoric language that enables him to describe aspects of the structure and dynamics of the psyche for which other terms and concepts are inadequate. Many details of his model city would be impossible, absurd, or injurious to implement literally; we should instead understand these as metaphors that illustrate principles of the interior life. It is, for example, like telling someone, “I can’t find exact terms to describe how intelligent Sam is, but if intelligence were height he’d be 10 feet tall.” The analogy makes perfect sense. But it doesn’t mean that human beings are or can be 10 feet tall. Similarly when Plato describes implausible details of his theoretical city (e.g., a caste system, a ruling class, eugenics, common wives, that rulers should lie to citizens, etc.) we should not assume that he means them literally, but only as metaphors for psychological principles.

Table 1 supplies psychological interpretations for some of the key elements of the Republic. These should be understood as illustrative rather than certain or dogmatic. It is important in any case that allegorical interpretation be guided by an explicit theoretical foundation, to avoid imposing wrong and idiosyncratic meanings (a constant danger with this approach). Our guiding premise here is that Plato is concerned with the moral salvation of the individual — something we can assert with a fair degree of confidence by considering, among other things, his other works, the writings of later Platonists, and his cultural influence generally.

Table 1: Psychopolis

Plato’s Republic as Psychological Allegory

Figure Psychological Interpretation
The polis The community of ones psyche, personality, mind or soul; psychopolis
Citizens of the polis sub-egos, complexes, dispositions, etc.
Rulers Specialized sub-egos responsible for inner government; rational in nature.
Auxiliaries, soldiers Sub-egos concerned with protecting the ‘city’ from inner and outer threats, and enforcing laws of the rulers. These are also associated with: (1) seeking social recognition and honor, and (2) incensive passions like indignation and anger.
Artisans, workers Appetitive sub-egos concerned with gratifying desires, material gain, etc.
Sophists Sub-egos which deceive us with false reasoning, biased judgment, wishful thinking, etc.
Poets (of the bad sort) Like sophists, but associated with nonrational fancies, delusions, follies
Philosopher-king A special ruler sub-ego which seeks harmonization and integration of entire personality based on Wisdom, Virtue, and ones innate moral sense (vision of the Good)
Education of rulers Measures taken to develop the philosophical sub-ego(s): e.g., by dialectic, virtue, contemplation, music, etc.
Prisoners (Cave Allegory) Sub-egos ‘chained’ to faulty (distorted by self-interest) notions of goodness and associated false reasonings
Regimes Alternative systems by which psychopolis is governed
   Spartan/Cretan Natural, wholesome following of instinct; playful, childlike, spontaneous, innocent.
   Monarchy/Aristocracy Government by the best and most virtuous elements of ones soul
   Timocracy Rule by honor-seeking or self-righteous sub-ego(s); may lead to over-control and rebellion by appetitive sub-egos.
   Oligarchy Government by sub-egos concerned with material gain
   Democracy Short-sighted hedonism; ‘if it feels good, do it’; no consistent course.
   Tyranny Obsessive, destructive pursuit of single desire or appetite (e.g., addiction)
Men ‘Male’ elements of personality: logic; impersonal idealism; action and initiative; anger and aggression; the intellect.
Women ‘Female’ elements of personality: feelings, sensations; affections; the will.
Children Newly conceived sub-egos
Golden/Silver races Nobler (more virtuous, wise, authentic) sub-egos and thoughts
Bronze/Iron races Baser (less virtuous, etc.) sub-egos and thoughts
Intermarriage Sub-egos of differing nobility may interbreed, producing children of a mixed nature. We must test sub-egos to determine their quality, and cannot rely on pedigree alone to judge worthiness to be rulers.
Tyrant’s progress (Books 8 & 9) A non-virtuous regime tends to invite further weakening our virtue, wisdom, and discernment, so that the next regime is usually worse. There is a characteristic trajectory of decline through the regimes of aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. One may, however, avoid this descent by means of philosophia.
Reincarnation (Myth of Er) Like above; one personality structure succeeds another according to lawful principles. For example through neglect of virtue one may become an animal (i.e., irrational).   Improvement is also possible (cf. Phaedrus 248b−250c: a philosopher will fare well in the ‘next life.’)

While above we have considered how modern personality theory may inform our understanding of Plato’s Republic, it is the reverse question that is perhaps more important: what insights about psychology does this, the greatest philosophical book the West has produced, contain, and how may we apply them in fields like personality theory, counseling and psychotherapy, and cognitive science? This would seem at face value an enormously promising question. Is it just possible that the Republic supplies a bridge, as it were, between the ancient wisdom of humankind — the perennial philosophy — and the modern, scientific mind? Final judgment must await further study. However I believe the existing evidence is sufficient to warrant a much more concerted effort than we have yet seen for psychologists to study the Republic and Plato’s other works.  We may, however, make some preliminary conjectures. The Republic, at a minimum, may contribute to modern personality theory the following concepts:

  • There is a somewhat hierarchical structure to sub-egos; some are acquisitive and appetitive; others rule or govern; an intermediate class enforce ‘laws’ and protect the psychic community.
  • There is a natural telos or optimal end point for personality development and the organization of psychopolis. We are designed by nature to reach a point of harmonious mental integration. Therefore psychotherapy and counseling should seek to align themselves and cooperate with this natural process.
  • Human beings have an innate moral nature. Self-actualization is an inherently moral process. Traditional concepts of virtue, morality, religiosity, and even sin (moral error) cannot be dismissed, but rather need to be understood and included in modern personality theory.
  • Human beings have a mode of intellectual knowing above discursive reasoning. This is noesis: an immediate apprehension or ‘seeing’ of first principles of logic and mathematics, morality, and religion (Uebersax, 2013). Incorrect reasoning that originates from narrowly defined self-interest (egoism) is remedied by an ascent to noetic experience.
  • Plato, in effect, proposes a technology for achieving what Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971) called peak and plateau experience and ‘Being‘.
  • There are several common regimes, better and worse, by which individuals govern the internal community. There are also common patterns of transitions from one regime to another. Vicious regimes tend to become more vicious.   Specific means are available (dialectic, contemplation, piety, ‘fair thoughts, true words, and good works’) by which one may progress from worse to nobler and better integrated regimes.


Annas, Julia. The Inner City: Ethics Without Politics in the Republic. In: Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics, Old and New (Ch. 4, pp. 72–95), Ithaca, 1999.

Blössner, Norbert. The City-Soul Analogy. In: Ed. G. R. F. Ferrari, The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (Ch. 13, pp. 345–385 ), Cambridge, 2007.

Carter, R. (2008) Multiplicity. New York: Little Brown.

Guthrie, William K. C. History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge, 1986. (See e.g., pp. 434–435 & note on p. 561.)

Hoerber, Robert G. The Theme of Plato’s Republic. Dissertation. Washington University, St. Louis, 1944.

Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York, 1968.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York, 1971.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990 (repr. 2013).

Uebersax, John. Higher Reason.  Paso Robles, CA: Californians for Higher Education Reform,  November 2013.

Uebersax, John. Psychology, Philosophy, and Plato’s Divided Line. Online article. Author website. 2014.

Uebersax, John S. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 29 August 2014. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Platonism as Psychotherapy. Christian Platonism.  26 June 2014.  Accessed 1 December 2014.

Uebersax, John. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. Online article. Author website. 2014.

Waterfield, Robin (tr.). The Republic of Plato. (Introduction). Oxford, 1993 (repr. 1998).

rev. 30 Dec 2015