Religion in American Culture, Olomouc 2000
TRANSCENDENTALISM AS A RELIGION,
PHILOSOPHY, AND LITERATURE
Prof. Elvira Osipova, Ph.D., St.
Petersburg University, Russia
Elvira Osipova is a professor
of St. Petersburg University. She teaches West European literature of the
19th century, American literature, American studies and the English language.
She is the author of three books: "Henry Thoreau: His Life and Work" (1985),
"Ralph Emerson: The Writer and the Time" (1991) and "Ralph Emerson and American
Romanticism" (2000). She also contributed seven chapters to the five-volume
"History of American Literature" published in Moscow.
was a movement in literature and culture which spanned the period of 1830s-1860s.
It was a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and Unitarianism
whose legacy it had inherited. Though Transcendentalists borrowed and developed
many ideas and concepts of the Enlighteners (optimism, the idea of people's
sovereignity, equality, democratism), they rejected their rationalism and
materialism. The philosophic principles underpinning their beliefs were different:
- mysticism and pantheism versus rationalism; - dialectical method versus
metaphisycal method; - idealism versus materialism. Transcendentalism was
also a kind of religion - with its own prophets, scriptures, preachers and
followers. Among the members of the Transcendental Club there were many New
England preachers, writers, poets and educationalists whose literary and spiritual
legacy shaped American literature of the XIX century and left its mark on
the cultural life of this period.
Members of the Transcendental
- Ralph Emerson (1803-1882).
Once a Unitarian minister, a writer, philosopher and poet. His most significant
works are "Nature" (1836), "Essays" (1841;1844), "The Conduct of Life"
- Henry Thoreau (1817-1862).
Poet, writer, naturalist and philosopher. ("A Week on the Concord and
Merrimack Rivers" (1849), "Walden, or Life in the Woods" (1854), "Civil
Disobedience" (1849), "Slavery in Massachussetts" (1854));
- George Ripley, Unitarian
minister, the founder of the Brook-Farm commune, editor of the "Harbinger";
- Bronson Alcott (1799-1888). Educationalist, the founder of the Fruitlands.
("Orphic sayings" (1840), "Conversations with Children on the Gospels"
- Margaret Fuller (1810-1850).
Journalist, critic, writer, editor of the "Dial" in 1840-42 ("Woman in
the nineteenth century" (1845), "Papers on literature and art" (1846);
- Theodore Parker (1810-1860).
Unitarian minister ("On the Transient and Permanent in Christianity" (1841);
- Orestes Brownson (1803- 1876).
Clergyman, educationalist, editor of "The Boston Quarterly Review".
- William Henry Channing (1810-1884).
Unitarian minister in Cincinnati, editor of the "Western Messenger";
- William Ellery Channing (1818-1901).
Poet, writer ("Poems" (1843), "Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist" (1873);
- Christopher Cranch (1813-1892).
Poet, Unitarian minister, artist close to the Hudson school of painting;
- John Dwight (1813-1893).
Unitarian minister, editor of the "Harbinger", musical critic;
- Charles Dana (1819-1897).
Journalist, editor of the "Harbinger", the "New York Tribune";
- Frederick Hedge (1805-1890).
Unitarian minister. One of the founders of the Transcendental Club. ("Prose
writers of Germany" (1848)).
The precursor of
the Transcendentalists was W.E.Channing (1780-1842), the great Unitarian divine.
He preached liberal religious doctrines of equality before God, the divine
nature of man's soul, enormous possibilities for self-improvement. They were
a specific fusion of European Unitarian beliefs and the thought of the Enlightenment.
In 1819 he broke with orthodox Calvinism ("Unitarian Christianity") and became
one of the founders of American Unitarianism. His sermons and pamphlets were
handbooks for the Transcendentalists, who built their philosophy partly on
his premises. They were influenced by his optimistic belief in endless possibilities
of man and his divine nature. He worked out the doctrine of amelioration,
which being adopted by his Transcendental followers was mercilessly attacked
by E.A.Poe. In "Self-Culture" and "The Elevation of the Laboring Classes"
Channing expressed his views on how to enhance men's spirituality:
- The universe is not a disorderly,
disconnected heap, but a beautiful whole, stamped throughout with unity,
so as to be an image of the One Infinite Spirit. Nothing stands alone.
All things are knit together, each existing for all and all for each...
- Much may be hoped from the
growing self-respect of the people, which will make them shrink indignantly
from the disgrace of being used as blinded partisans and unreflecting
tools. Much also is to be hoped from the discovery, which must sooner
or later be made, that the importance of government is enormously overrated,
that it does not deserve all this stir, that there are vastly more effectual
means of human happiness. Political institutions are to be less and less
deified, and to shrink into a narrower space; and just in proportion as
a wiser estimate of government prevails, the present frenzy of political
excitement will be discovered and put to shame (1).
The views of the
Transcendentalists were shaped to a certain extent by the national Puritan
tradition exemplified by Cotton Mather and Increase Mather, and the major
theoretician of Calvinism in the XVIII century Jonathan Edwards, who preached
the doctrine of "inner light". Edwards was a religious reformer: the doctrine
of predestination was reinterpreted by him in such a way as to admit that
everybody can get divine revelation and shape his/her own destiny. One of
the facets of faith shared by the Transcendentalists and the Puritans was
the myth of America being "the City on the Hill" created by the first Governor
of Massachusetts John Winthrop. But Emerson and his Transcendental friends
rejected the severity of Calvinist morality, the concept of a punishing God,
the sinfulness of man, and the doctrine of redemption. Religion was one of
the mainstays of American Transcendentalism. This religious and philosophical
movement emerged as a reaction against Puritanism and a negation of some doctrines
of Unitarianism. Its main value was Christian ethics. Being advocates of a
"natural religion", which did not recognize intermediaries between man and
God, and challenged the necessity of church as an institution, Emerson, Thoreau,
Ripley, Parker, Alcott and Brownson could not but clash with the established
Unitarian orthodoxy whose main spokesman was Andrews Norton. After Emerson's
Divinity School Address (1838) in which the sage of Concord spoke about religious
self-reliance, Norton published his treatise On the Latest Form of Infidelity
(1839). The ensuing polemics between Norton and Emerson was supported by George
Ripley and Theodore Parker and is known as "the war of pamphlets". Theodore
Parker made another assault on the bulwark of Unitarianism in his famous discourse
On the Transient and Permanent in Christianity (1841), whose radicalism was
unprecedented in America. (He was even called "Transcendentalist Savonarola").
He laid down the principles of his philosophy of religion, declared the superfluousness
of the clergy by referring to Christ himself:
- He would have us do the same;
worship with nothing between us and God; act, think, feel, live, in perfect
obedience to him: and we never are Christians as he was the Christ, until
we worship, as Jesus did, with no mediator, with nothing between us and
the Father of all.
- The heresy of one age is
the orthodox belief and "only infallible rule" of the next;
- That pure ideal religion
which Jesus saw on the mount of his vision, and lived out in the lowly
life of a Galilean peasant <... >cannot pass away;
- Christianity is not a system
of doctrines, but rather a method of attaining oneness with God;
- <…> <...>since the fourth
century the true Christian life has been out of the established church,
and not in it, but rather in the ranks of dissenters (2).
Following this discourse
Parker was proclaimed a heresiarch, who intended to shake the very foundations
of faith and church.
strove to achieve a religious reformation which they saw in rejecting Calvinist
doctrines of predestination, original sin, and redemption. They also negated
the rationalism of Unitarians ("the dead hand of Locke", as they put it),
who insisted on the necessity to prove the divinity of Christ by his miracles.
Their religious views
were expressed :
- in Emerson's Nature (the
Bible of the Transcendentalists), his essay Worship, in Divinity School
Address. In the latter he spoke about a "decaying church and a wasting
unbelief": The stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age
of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading
the character of Jesus by representing him as a man, indicate with sufficient
clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true teacher
to show us that God is, not was...
- in Thoreau's A Week on the
Concord and Merrimack rivers: 1) I trust that some may be as near and
dear to Buddha, or Christ, or Swedenborg who are without the pale of their
churches. It is necessary not to be Christian to appreciate the beauty
and significance of the life of Christ; 2) Really, there is no infidelity,
nowadays, so great as that which prays, and keeps the Sabbath, and rebuilds
the churches; 3) I know of no book that has so few readers [as the New
Testament. - E.O.]. There is none so truly strange, and heretical, and
unpopular <…> <...>Let but one of these sentences ["Lay not up for
yourselves treasures on earth" - E.O.] be rightly read, from any pulpit
in the land, and there would not be left one stone of that meetinghouse
upon another; 4) He [Christ] taught mankind but imperfectly how to live;
his thoughts were all directed toward another world. There is another
kind of success than his. Even here we have a sort of living to get, and
must buffet it somewhat longer. There are various tough problems yet to
solve, and we must make shift to live, betwixt spirit and matter, such
a human life as we can; 5) The sort of morality which the priests inculcate
is a very subtle policy, far finer than the politicians', and the world
is very successfully ruled by them as the policemen. It is not worth the
while to let our imperfections disturb us always. The conscience really
does not and ought not to monopolize the whole of our lives, any more
than the heart or the head. It is as liable to disease as any other part
- in Brownson's articles in
"Boston Quarterly Review", as well as his books New Views of Christianity
and Charles Elwood, or the Infidel Converted (1840). He discussed differences
in views with his Transcendental friends in his semi-autobiographical
novels The Mediatorial Life of Jesus (1842) and The Convert, (1857), the
latter being written after his conversion to Catholicism.
factor in the ideology of Transcendentalists was their religious tolerance.
They took great interest in the activities of various Christian sects, such
as shakers, mormons, universalists, New Jerusalem church (as Swedenborgians
in America termed themselves), Moravian brothers and quakers. Some doctrines
of William Penn's followers became aspects of their own belief. These were
borrowed by Henry Thoreau for his doctrine of civil disobedience, which was
also in line with the tradition of American religious dissidents Anne Hutchinson
and Roger Williams.
Thus, in the legacy
of the Transcendentalists religion and philosophy became entwined, their Christianity
being of a special kind, close to the "natural religion" of the Enlighteners,
and half a century later, of Leo Tolstoy.
They followed the
tradition of J.J.Rousseau, Th. Jefferson and Th. Paine who had criticised
dogmatic Christianity from the standpoit of "natural religion". Like the theory
of "natural right" it helped them to revise the dogmas which paralized the
development of social thought. Th.Paine once said, "My Reason is my Religion";
Emerson and Thoreau could have said, "My conscience is my religion".
The philosophy of
religion was only one aspect of Transcendental worldview as it was formulated
in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott. Their philosophy comprised ontological,
epistemological, ethical and aesthetic aspects.
- ontology: Transcendentalists
revived and propagated Neo-Platonic concept of the Over-Soul (Plotinus,
Proclus, Jamblicus). This became the foundation of their philosophy, i.e.
their concept of the essence of the world, its moral foundation, so to
say. Hence, they believed in the of Unity of all things, the interconnectedness
of the Good, the True, the Beautiful. This triad propped up their optimism.
"The world, wrote Emerson in his "Nature", proceeds from the same Spirit
as the body of man. It is a remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a
projection of God in the unconscious"; "As fast as you conform your life
to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.
A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit"
- epistemology : Schelling's
philosophy of transcendental idealism was adopted to create their own
system of transcendental idealism, with its hierarchy of Reason and Understanding
(or, Intuition and Logical Reasoning). Intuitive cognition of Kant's "things-in-themselves"
(God, Eternity, Immortality) became possible. For American Transcendentalists,
as well as for other Romantic writers and philosophers, as different from
the Enlighteners and Kant, Intuition became the highest means of cognition.
Theodore Parker expressed this idea in his discourse "On the Transient
and Permanent in Christianity" thus: ...The great truths of morality and
religion, the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God, are perceived
intuitively, and by instinct, as it were, though our theology be imperfect
and miserable (6).
- aesthetics: They built their
theory on some of Plato's ideas of the Supreme beauty; Coleridge's organic
theory of art; Romantic concept of the Poet, the mission of art; the mystical
nature of poetic creation.
- ethics: There were five pillars
in the Transcendental ethical doctrine: self-reliance, unity with nature,
love, simple life, or, deliberate poverty ("plain living and high thinking"),
All these were deemed
conductive to intense spiritual life; to spiritual self-perfection as a way
of creating a more perfect society. They built Utopias - in theory and in
practice (Brook-Farm, Fruitlands), Thoreau's one-man Utopia on Walden Pond.
The Transcendental "philosophy of life" is expressed in a poetic way in Thoreau's
- The true harvest of my daily
life is somewhat intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning
or evening. It is a little star-dust, a segment of the rainbow which I
- Why should we be in such
desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man
does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears
a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however
measured or far away;
- Cultivate poverty like a
garden herb, like a sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things
whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them (7) .
- Poor old man! All he has
is something he has bought... But I am the richest owner on the Merrimack:
what I see is mine. A true rich man is he who - in summer and winter -
finds satisfaction in his own thoughts (8).
of love was a blend of Platonic and Christian ideas. It had three stages -
1/ love initial, 2/ friendship (or, love daemonic, heroic enthusiasm, in Neo-Platonic
terms), 3/ love celestial (love to God, or all humanity). Thus, the image
of "Diotima's ladder" (from Plato's "Symposium") was supplemented by the Christian
concept of love to God, as the consummation of their theory of love. These
ideas were expressed in essays "Friendship" by both Thoreau and Emerson, in
the latter's essay "Love", and their poems. In his journal Thoreau wrote in
April 1838: "I think awile of love, and, while I think,/ Love is to me a world,
/Sole meat and sweetest drink, /And close connecting link /'Tween heaven and
The concept of self-reliance
is fundamental to understanding the essence of the philosophy and whole legacy
of the Transcendentalists. It became the foundation of Thoreau's theory of
- I think that we should be
men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a
respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which
I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right;
- Under a government which
imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison;
only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honour...(9)
It is well known
that Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King regarded Thoreau's
doctrine of civil disobedience as a means of enacting a peaceful revolution.
This is one of the fruits of the Transcendental thinking and religious aspirations
- they strove to increase spirituality as a result of the influx of Spirit.
- Channing, Willam Ellery.
On the Elevation of the Laboring Classes /Essays English ansd American.
The Harvard Classics. New York, 1938. P.324-325, 320.
- Parker, Theodore. A Discourse
of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity / The American Transcendentalists.
Their Prose ans Poetry //Ed.by Perry Miller. Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden
City, New York, 1957. P.P. 130, 114, 132, 129, 120.
- Emerson R.W. Complete Works.
In 2 vls. Vol.2. L., 1875. P.201.
- Thoreau, Henry. A Week on
the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. A Signet Classic. New York, 1961. P.P.
66, 73, 70, 71, 71.
- Emerson R.W. Op.cit. Vol.2.
- Parker Th. Op.cit. P.115.
- Thoreau, Henry. Walden, Or
Life in the Woods. A Signet Book, New York, 1949. P. 147, 216, 218.
- Thoreau, Henry. The Writings
in 20 vols. Boston; New York. Vol.1. P. 373..
- Thoreau, Henry. Civil Disobedience
and other Essays. Dover Publications, New York, 1993. P.P. 2, 9, 9.