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Transcendentalism: the Rebellion

Transcendentalism, as defined by Dictionary. com, is “any philosophy based upon the doctrine that the principles of reality are to be discovered by the study of the processes of thought, or a philosophy emphasizing the intuitive and spiritual above the empirical? ” (Transcendentalism). This new philosophy created a rebellion and turn away from the traditional religions in the United States. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are two primary authors and promoters of Transcendentalism.

In this paper I will be focusing on Emerson’s Nature and Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods, from now on to be referred to as simply Walden, to show the rebellion against religion and the quest to know one’s self through a different way.

To begin with, I’ll start with a basic overview of what Transcendentalism was. “Transcendentalism is not a religion (in the traditional sense of the word); it is a pragmatic philosophy, a state of mind, and a form of spirituality?.

[I]t does not reject an afterlife, but its emphasis is on this life” (Reuben).

Transcendentalism has four basic principles, in which the transcendentalists agreed upon. The four principles are 1. An individual is the spiritual center of the universe – and in an individual can be found the clue to nature, history and, ultimately, the cosmos itself?. The structure of the universe literally duplicates the structure of the individual self – all knowledge, therefore, begins with self-knowledge. This is similar to Aristotle’s dictum “know thyself. ” 2. Transcendentalists accepted the neo-platonic conception of nature as a living mystery, full of signs – nature is symbolic.

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3. The belief that individual virtue and happiness depend upon self-realization ? this depends upon the reconciliation of two universal psychological tendencies: a. the expansive of self-transcending tendency ? a desire to embrace the whole world ? to know and become one with the world. b. the contracting or self-asserting tendency ? the desire to withdraw, remain unique and separate ? an egotistical existence (Reuben). As you can see, Transcendentalism moved in a different direction than religion. In short, Transcendentalism stressed the individual self and the here and now.

Religion, on the other hand, Prev Page placed emphasis on conforming and the afterlife. The Transcendentalist movement was fueled in most part, as mentioned in the introduction, by Emerson and his work entitled Nature, and Thoreau and his work entitled Walden. I will begin with Emerson’s Nature. “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs” (Emerson 1110)?

This is how Emerson begins Nature, full of questions as to why we follow the generations before us and not think for ourselves. He goes on to write the proposal and favor of Transcendentalism for a new generation. As the title suggests, Emerson writes about nature, and it’s interconnection with human beings. “We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy” (Emerson 1111).

With this sentence we can see Emerson emphasizing that “[t]he unity of life and the universe must be realized. There is a relationship between all things [and] one must have faith in intuition, for no church or creed can communicate truth” (Reuben). In chapter five, Emerson continues the connection between man and nature; he also applies the third principle of Transcendentalism here as well. He writes [a] third use which Nature subserves to man is that of Language. Nature is the vehicle of thought, and in a simple, double, and threefold degree. 1.

Words are signs of natural facts. 2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. 3. Nature is the symbol of the spirit (Emerson 1118). Transcendentalism states that man and nature are the same, hence the connection between the two. By studying or understanding nature or man, you are studying or understanding the other. This is the message, in my opinion, conveyed and advocated by Emerson. The next Transcendentalist author is Henry David Thoreau and his work Walden. In Walden Thoreau writes and describes his two year stay at his cabin at Walden Pond.

Thoreau places emphasis on self-reliance, closeness to Prev Page nature, and solitude. Thoreau begins chapter four with writing [b]ut while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all thins and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard?. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert.

What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer (Thoreau 1930-31)? Here Thoreau warns us against relying on just literature as a means of transcending. We need to filter things for ourselves and rely upon ourselves. Thoreau writes about closeness to nature and solitude in chapter four and chapter five. Thoreau writes in chapter four about the closeness of nature.

He writes [s]ometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time (Thoreau 1931). In chapter five he turns his attention to solitude.

In this chapter he writes [s]ome of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves (Thoreau 1942). Not only does Thoreau write about solitude, but he writes about the benefits that solitude has provided him. In conclusion, Transcendentalism and religion share a thing in common: both seek to find the answer about the connection between man and fate. Transcendentalism went in a different direction though.

Religion sought to Prev Page answer the connection through a means of conformity, close-mindedness, and that what happens now will affect you in the next. Transcendentalism, on the other hand, and as we can see from Emerson’s Nature and Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods, advocated solitude, a closeness with nature, and understanding that what happens to one effects another in this life, whether it be a person or thing. Works Cited Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed.

Robert S. Levine & Arnold Krupat. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 1110-11, 1118. Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism (AT): A Brief Introduction. ” PAL: Perspectives in American Literature-A Research and Reference Guide- An Ongoing Project. 24 Feb. 2007. 16 November 2007 . Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden, or Life in the Woods. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Robert S. Levine & Arnold Krupat. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 1930-31, 1942.

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