Archive for the ‘History’ Category
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.
Again in 2013, the White House has proclaimed a National Day of Hubris.
An ancient tradition, brought to America by the Puritan settlers from Great Britain and exercised regularly here since, is to set aside certain days, especially in times of war, danger, or extreme hardship, for public fasting, humiliation, and prayer. An integral part of this tradition is to reflect as a nation on our failings and to “implore the forgiveness of all our transgressions [and] a spirit of repentance and reformation.”
For many years the presidential proclamations of a National Day of Prayer have made scrupulous reference to the principle of repentance. However both presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have consistently omitted any reference to a penitential spirit in their proclamations.
So apparently the United States has done no wrong since 1993. The irony is that apparently we still believe in God, and that God can change our condition from ill- to good-fortune. But not that ill-fortune might just possibly have something to do with our own errors, negligence, or selfishness.
The magnificent paragraphs below must surely rank among the best writings of the Anglo-American peace movement.
Their history is interesting. They come from a sermon delivered by the Rev. Richard Ramsden (1761–1831) of Cambridge on March 12, 1800, on the occasion of a General Fast associated with hostilities between Great Britain and Napoleon’s France. The sermon made a great impression on the renowned jurist, Basil Montagu (1770–1851), who by chance happened to be in attendance. Through Montagu they found their way into the annals of the British Parliament (London, 1814). Montagu later, describing the words as “abounding with deep thought,” quoted them in a letter to his friend, Sir James Mackintosh, which appeared in Mackintosh’s published Memoirs (Mackintosh, 1836). There they were read by the eminent statesman William Gladstone (1809–1898), who quoted them in his book, The State in Its Relations with the Church (1841), remarking of them: “If there be no full record of this magnificent production, it does not speak well for the generation to which it was given.” Possibly from the same source they also came to the attention of the American Unitarian minister, Abiel Abbot Livermore (1864–1934), who quoted them in his work, The War with Mexico Reviewed (1850, pp. 281), the prize-winning submission in an essay competition sponsored by the American Peace Society for the best review and analysis of the much hated Mexican-American war. Still later we find them reproduced in an installment of A Christian Treasury (Bonar, 1878); there the author is simply given as ‘Old Christian’, marking the passage of these profound and edifying words to the realm of cultural lore.
Gladstone would be heartened to know that the sermon was in fact published – once shortly after its delivery (Ramsden, 1800) and later in a collection (Ramsden, 1827).
Based on an exegesis of the vision of the four beasts in the Chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel, Ramsden likens the nations of the earth to great beasts of prey that fight against and seek to devour one another. Nations are by nature amoral, just like lions and tigers: they have no innate law beyond that of self-interest. We today might describe them as operating in a purely Darwinistic framework, governed by the rule of survival of the fittest. This is the political universe of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and modern neoconservativism and realism.
Were this all to the story, it would be a bleak and nihilistic picture. But Ramsden sees something more, and points the way to a solution suggested by Daniel 7:3-4.
 And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.
 The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. (Dan 7:2-4; KJV)
Ramsden then proceeds explain how a “a man’s heart” may be given to nations, to soften and humanize them and mitigate their beastliness. First he describes how, in God’s mercy, a human heart may come to a nation:
“It comes by priests, by lawgivers, by philosophers, by schools, by education, by the nurse’s care, the mother’s anxiety, the father’s severe brow. It comes by letters, by science, by every art, by sculpture, painting, and poetry; by the song on war, on peace, on domestic virtue, on a beloved and magnanimous King; by the Iliad, by the Odyssey, by tragedy, by comedy. It comes by sympathy, by love, by the marriage union, by friendship, generosity, meekness, temperance; by every virtue and example of virtue. It comes by sentiments of chivalry, by romance, by music, by decorations, and magnificence of buildings; by the culture of the body, by comfortable clothing, by fashions in dress, by luxury and commerce. It comes by the severity, the melancholy, and benignity of the countenance; by rules of politeness, ceremonies, formalities, solemnities. It comes by the rites attendant on law and religion; by the oath of office, by the venerable assembly, by the judge’s procession and trumpets, by the disgrace and punishment of crimes; by public prayer, public fasts; by meditation, by the Bible, by the consecration of churches, by the sacred festival, by the cathedral’s gloom and choir; by catechizing, by confirmation, by the burial of the dead, by the observance of the sabbath, by the sacraments, by the preaching of the Gospel, by faith in the atonement of the cross, by the patience and martyrdom of the Saints, by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Ghost.”
He next describes what this heart does, or, in his words, “how its exercise, or affection appears,” and with particular attention to tempering the warlike tendency of a nation:
The exercise of a nation’s heart appears, in its imposing on its own ferocity restraints, in its submitting to checks on the levers and limbs of its strength, in its consenting to be one of the aggregate commonwealth of nations, in its conforming to a public, general law…. It appears in the sending and receiving of embassies, and in the forming of treaties of intercourse. It appears in allowing the soldier to judge of the pleas of humanity, in not putting to death the prisoner taken in battle, in alleviating the horrors of the prison, in healing the wounded enemy, in shewing the white banner, in signing of capitulations.
It deepens the lines of the impression, it has received. It goes to the temple before battle. It prays against the visitation of the sword, as a plague of God. It mourns over that, which it is about to take into its hands. It prays for forgiveness of the breaches of the public law, it has consented to be under, though not bound to such consent. In this sense it prays against its own ambition, injustice, and love of rapine. It appoints fasts before battle. It fasts against its own strength; it weakens itself, and then, so weakened, lies prostrate before the superior strength of God. It seeks in this humiliation and acknowledgment the anointing from above, before it descend on the plain to wrestle.
The human heart of a nation improves itself by promoting virtue:
Like the heart of a man, this heart of a nation inculcates on itself, what promotes the habit of its virtue. It brightens the polish, it has taken. It cherishes the science, law, and religion, by which its softness comes.
Finally, Ramsden describes whose responsibility is the moulding of this heart, or “from whom this heart takes its texture and shape”:
“Whence the heart of a nation comes, we have perhaps, sufficiently explained. And it must appear, to what most awful obligations and duty are held all those, from whom this heart takes its texture and shape, our King, our Princes, our Nobles, all, who wear the badge of office or honour; all priests, judges, senators, pleaders, interpreters of law; all instructers of youth, all seminaries of education, all parents, all learned men, all professors of science and art, all teachers of manners. Upon them depends the fashion of the nation’s heart. By them it is to be chastised, refined, and purified. By them is the state to lose the character and title of the beast of prey. By them are the iron scales to fall off, and a skin of youth, beauty, freshness and polish to come upon it. By them it is to be made so tame and gentle, as that a child may lead it….
“How ought they then to consider, what their temper and conduct are; how ought they to reflect, that by mistake, by folly, by rudeness, by bad example, by corrupt sentiment, by false philosophy, by heresy, by impenitence, by contempt of law and religion, by any sentiment or action, which is base, mean, or evil, they are fostering the brutishness of the nation, keeping up contention and strife throughout the world, encouraging war and shedding of blood, barring from God’s mercy their fellow men, the poor, their own dependants, their own sons and daughters, hindering the descent of the Holy Ghost upon earth, delaying the reign of him, who died to save and bless the world.
“How ought they to reflect on the guilt of such conduct, which is not confined to one little spot or corner, but reaches and touches by links, which go round the globe, the happiness, the refinement, the peace, the salvation of all mankind now living, and of all future generations. How ought they to reflect on the blessing and reward of a contrary conduct, which is ever contributing to banish to their own place, all malice, wrath, jealousy, envy, revenge, cruelty, which heaps coals of fire on every hard mass, and from iron brings out gold, from brass silver, from stones gems; the gold, the silver, and the gems, which form the walls, the gates, and the battlements of the last city to be built, the city of God and of his Christ.”
* * * *
Ed. Bonar, Horatius. The Christian Treasury. Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter & Co., 1872. (see p. 395).
Gladstone, William. E. The State in Its Relations with the Church. Fourth edition. London: John Murray, 1841. Vol. 1. Section 3.2.23. (see pp. 169-171).
Ed. Hansard, T. C. The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time. Vol. 28 (June 7 to July 30, 1814). Appendix. London: 1814. (see pp. 137-140).
Livermore, Abiel A. The War with Mexico Reviewed. Boston: American Peace Society, 1850.
Ed. Mackintosh, Robert James. Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Mackintosh. Vol. 1. London: Edward Moxon, 1836. (see pp. 158-161).
Ramsden, Richard. Reflections on War and the Final Cessation of All Hostility: A Sermon Preached before the University of Cambridge, on Wednesday, March 12, 1800, Being the Day Appointed for a General Fast. Cambridge: J. Burges, 1800.
Ramsden, Richard. War and the Final Cessation of all Hostility. In: Richard Ramsden, D. D., Twenty-Six Sermons, London: 1827, pp. 237-256.