Last week, I visited Concord, Massachusetts. I walked among the gravestones of some pretty impressive American writers and thinkers. They are buried in the very forest where they often sought inspiration and vision, nearly 200 years ago. It’s not possible to leave them and not feel some arousal of deep thought or an appreciation for their extraordinary journeys of self actualization.
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” – Thoreau
TRANSCENDENTALISM is a big, fancy word. What does it mean? According to Google, the ideology is “based on the idea that, in order to understand the nature of reality, one must first examine and analyze the reasoning process that governs the nature of experience.” Huh?
Even upon reading the definition, it’s difficult to comprehend the scope of what it means to adhere to the combination of philosophy, religion and politics. Yet, the concept was widely known – and practiced – in the 1830s, right here in New England. How, you might wonder, could they have managed to share ideas and communicate without telephones, the Internet or even a reliable newspaper?
Early transcendentalists would likely have balked at much of modern technology, anyway. Their core belief was that individuals possess inner knowledge that “transcends” – or surpasses – what can be seen, heard, touched or felt physically. People who subscribed, like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, took to the woods for research, not Google.
The foundations of Transcendentalism are truth and self-reliance. Emerson and Thoreau both wrote extensively about it. The way to find this truth, they said, is to communicate with nature and search within one’s self. Society and its institutions are seen as destructive. Another tenant is that God exists in all things, making church unnecessary. One only needs be in tune with himself and the natural world. Materialism destroys the meaning of life.
In their search for truth, they rejected the idea of miracles as inspiration. Transcendentalists respected Jesus, but also found religious value in writings beyond the Bible, including those of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. They were pioneers in the American study of comparative religion.
Yet, like something out of the 1960s, the early transcendentalists believed in intuition and artistic expression. In their world, all human inspiration, biblical or otherwise, originated from the same divinity. Artists, especially poets, were viewed as prophets and poetry as a potential source of divine revelation.
The search for truth, intuition and self-reliance colored their approach to social problems and political Issues. Transcendentalists believed it acceptable to break laws if one’s moral code found them to be unjust. To behave otherwise might cause them to become involved in a personal dabble in evil: Devine inspiration was blunted by social conformity, such as laws.
Transcendentalists criticized many social structures, believing they prevented individual spiritual development. They saw slavery as inherently wrong and protested against it, some becoming active in the abolitionist movement. They placed great importance on the spiritual value of nature. Thoreau is still regarded as a founder of today’s environmental movement.
Transcendentalism has always had its critics. They were accused of undermining Christianity and of putting too much emphasis on the individual – at the expense of society as a whole. Yet, American literature, religion, philosophy, and politics have all been profoundly shaped by the movement.
Whatever your opinion, they surely were great examples of ‘thinking outside the box’. In a time when they had to travel great distances on horseback to be with like-minded people, just to communicate, it was not an obstacle. Their thinking influenced those who became founders of our nation. They shaped society then and continue to do so today, through their writing.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
“Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.”
– from Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau