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Transcendentalism

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Transcendentalism


Transcendentalism was a movement in philosophy, literature, and religion that emerged and was popular in the nineteenth century New England because of a need to redefine man and his place in the world in response to a new and changing society. The industrial revolution, universities, westward expansion, urbanization and immigration all made the life in a city like Boston full of novelty and turbulence. Transcendentalism was a reaction to an impoverishment of religion and mechanization of consciousness of eighteenth century rational doctrines that ceased to be satisfying. After the success of the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, an American man emerged confident and energetic. However, with the release of nervous energy, an American was forced to look at a different angle at his place in the world and society.



The world of the nineteenth century Boston was that of emergence of new currents of thought in response to the conservative atmosphere. The wealthy upper classes (the aristocracy) were conservative and suspicious of any innovations. They dominated the society and demanded conformity to their social ideals, being suspicious of any new structure of society. The irony was that by their reliance on tradition and old beliefs (such as Puritanism) they acknowledged the harmony with cosmic law. Old values and traditions would serve as a base to Transcendentalism, although a radical movement in itself.



In the nineteenth century America plunged into the Industrial Revolution. In the eighteenth century, goods were produced in home system operations. The remarkable development of capitalism in Boston became evident after the French and Indian war of 1812. Two of huge factories privately owned in Boston were Francis Lowell's Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham and Merrimack Manufacturing Company in Lowell. As the role of women in society became more indiscriminate, young females dominated factory towns such as Lowell. They came from all over New England's farms and small towns, worked for a few years and then returned. Thus the mill populations were transient. With mechanization of textiles, new styles and fashions developed. Thus newness was becoming a virtue rather than peril.



Improvement of transportation made urbanization and westward expansion more rapid. Cumberland Turnpike was built in 1811. Erie Canal, finished in 1825, connected Hudson River with the Great Lakes. Baltimore and Ohio Steam Railroad of 1828 linked the country. The first successful steamboat, Clermont, was launched in 1807. Between 1789 and 1850 the total population of the country soared from 4 million to 23 million. The area of the country more than tripled in this period, reaching 3 million square miles, as more states were added. The trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific was completed in 1850 when California was admitted as the 31st state. Southeastern expansion was completed in 1819, when Spain gave up East Florida. Increase in population also brought about urbanization. In 1820, only 7.2% lived in cities larger than 2.5 thousand people, while by 1840 the number soared to 92.1%. Boston increased its population from 54 thousand to 120 thousand in this period. Frederick Jackson Turner captured the atmosphere precisely: "All was motion and change ?'' Restlessness was universal."



However, people often could not endure this pace of growth. There was not enough time and money for planning and building of houses. This resulted in overcrowded houses, often with more than one family living in the same room, poor sewage and lighting. This lead to an increase in crime. Ethnic conflicts often resulted in fights between street gangs, as people of the same nationality tended to live close together and battled other ethnic groups. Immigration brought racial conflicts with it just as urbanization brought slums. However, these conditions proved to be a fertile ground for reform, which was one of the reasons for rise and popularity of Transcendentalism whose members occupied themselves with social reform.



Transcendentalism is a belief in a higher reality that could be perceived. The concept of transcendence was first developed by Plato. He believed in existence of absolute goodness, one beyond description. He stated that it could be perceived only through intuition rather than logic or rationality. Ralph Waldo Emerson would later use Plato's other theory that the world is an expression of spirit to develop his theory of correspondence. Kant was the first one to state that God and soul are transcendent. The innate principles with which mind gives form to its perceptions and makes experience intelligible are transcendental. German idealists, such as Fichte, Schelling, Husseri were influenced by Kant who in turn inspired New England transcendental philosophers.



Emerson, the unofficial leader of the transcendentalism whose philosophy served as a paradigm for the movement's members, was also influenced by oriental mysticism. He developed a theory of correspondence, which stated that an individual, (the microcosm or Indian atman), and the Oversoul, (macrocosm or Indian Brahman) have the same structure, because God is immanent in every human being. "We see God around us because he dwells within us. The beauty of God's works is revealed to the mind by a light beaming from itself." Intuition was the means for a conscious union of individual psyche with world psyche. An individual is the spiritual center of the world. Clues to nature, cosmos, and history can be found in an individual. Therefore, all knowledge begins with Aristotle's dictum, "Know thyself," or self-knowledge.



Just like a person can know the world by exploring himself, he can understand his own being by paying close attention to the world around him. Emerson said, "All which philosophy distinguishes as Not Me ?'' is nature." From this concept transcendentalists developed a semi-religious attitude towards nature. Transcendentalists urged people to look to nature to learn about oneself. Nature is a mystery and full of symbols. This concept paved the way for a new current in literature - symbolist literature. Physical nature is in itself neutral. Attributes such as beautiful depend on the individual's disposition. For example, if one feels lousy, he will dismiss a gorgeous day, but if he is in a good mood, bad weather such as rain might seem cheerful to him. Since nature is an individual's mirror, Aristotle's "Know thyself!" is equivalent to "study nature!"



At death, individual souls return to the Oversoul and join with it. For Emerson, the concept of a river was highly symbolic and he carried it through much of his works. "All rivers flow into the ocean." The purpose of life is the union with the Oversoul. For Emerson, a priest was a poet, whose soul resonated very well with the structure and rhythm of the whole. Jesus for him was not divine, but a human who reached total harmony with the world around him. Individual's happiness and virtue depend on self-realization, which in turn depends on the reconciliation of expansive and contracting instincts. The expansive or self-transcending tendency is to know and embrace the world. The contracting or self-asserting tendency is to withdraw, remain unique and separated. This was influenced by Hegel's theory that the purpose of life is the reconciliation of opposites, such as these egoistic and altruistic tendencies.



A person's ultimate goal is to unite with the Oversoul, which is the same as to find harmony in interaction with nature. Nature could be used through commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. Natural world works for the human profit. Humans use nature for commodities: wind is used as steam for power, agriculture is dependent on circulation of light, air, and moisture. Beauty of harmonious working of nature corresponds to the harmonious working of the mind. "The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street, and sees the sky and the woods, and he is a man again." Nature also shapes language. Words are "signs of natural facts," nature is a "symbol of spirit." For example, "right" means "straight", "wrong" means "twisted", "wind" is a metaphor for "spirit". Emerson said, "the whole of nature ?'' is a metaphor for the human mind." Most importantly, nature schools the mind and teaches willpower. One cannot quarrel with categories of time, space. Discipline and wholeness are the climax of correspondence.



Emerson believed nature and God to contain movement. "Nature is not fixed but fluid." Still waters were identified with stagnation, while flow was identified with development and change, and thus with reform. "The waters become impure by standing still, - by your not trying," Bronson Alcott told his students in his Temple School. Emerson expected everyone's mind to flow. "When a man rests he stinks, if anything could stand still, it would be instantly crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted, and if it were a mind, it would be crazed." Transcendentalism was popular among the young questing minds because of its urge for change and reform.



Transcendentalism was a liberal branch of Unitarianism. Unitarians preached stability, harmony, rational thought, progressive morality, classical learning, and other hallmarks of Enlightenment Christianity. The founders of transcendentalism were all Harvard-educated Unitarians. Both Unitarians and transcendentalists considered the emotions to be the drive to translate ethical knowledge, but deplored the excessive emotionalism of the Revivalism. Unitarianism stressed the importance of voluntary ethical conduct and the intellect's ability to discern what constituted ethical conduct. William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian who held much of the Transcendentalist ideas and whom the transcendentalists considered to be the father of the movement, said in the "Unitarian Christianity" sermon in 1819:



"Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books."



Unitarians thought the Revelations to be an external favor of God to assume spiritual progress. The only way for a spiritual transformation to occur ...

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