The American Transcendentalists: Values & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Overview of Transcendentalism
  • 1:10 Transcendentalist Values
  • 4:44 Passage Analysis
  • 7:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Kulik

Beth has taught high school English for 7 years. She has a master's degree in Education Leadership.

In this lesson, we will read and learn about the American Transcendentalist movement, focusing on its origin and core values. We will also conduct a brief passage analysis, before concluding the lesson with a quiz.


Brief Overview of the Movement

Transcendentalism is a philosophical and social movement that began around 1836, in New England. However, before we delve into defining and comprehending this movement, it's necessary for one to understand why it was developed. It was created as a rebellious reaction to the previous Age of Reason, and its rationalist way of thinking. The original members of the movement also believed society and its organized institutions (for example, religion and politics) were corrupting the purity of individuals. The movement was created based on ideas from a variety of sources, including Hindu texts, various other religious ideas, and German idealism.

Transcendentalism, as a whole, centered on the writings and teachings of American author Ralph Waldo Emerson; it especially focused on his piece entitled, Self-Reliance. Transcendentalists were some of the first known non-conformists in America, and thus they critiqued contemporary society for its unthinking conformity. Through his writing, Emerson urged everyone to find his own 'original relation to the universe.' Now that we have a better idea why this movement was created, let's move on and focus on its core, essential values.


Transcendentalist Values

Transcendentalists believed in numerous values, however they can all be condensed into three basic, essential values: individualism, idealism, and the divinity of nature.


As we discussed briefly earlier, transcendentalist followers alleged that organized institutions in society, like religion and politics, negatively tainted individuals' innocence. At the same time, they believed that individuals are at their best when they are entirely independent and 'self-reliant,' hence Emerson's essay of the same name. The notion of thinking for oneself without following the rules set forth by a society is one of the fundamental tenets of transcendentalism. This concept inspires one to have his own free thoughts, based on his own values, rather than the values of others.

As you can probably imagine, during the early 19th Century when this movement was first created, its members were not well-received, or even liked, by many others. However, rather than feeling defeated, true transcendentalists remained true to their movement's new values and continued to advocate for their unpopular, nonconformist ideas. Because of this, many members of society, or the conformists, feared transcendentalists and assumed them to be out to wreak havoc on society. These people were mistaken though, because the true purpose of becoming an individual, according to transcendentalist belief, is to promote the peace and harmony of becoming oneself. One of Emerson's famous aphorisms helps clarify this belief: 'conformity is the death of individualism.'


The second key value of the transcendentalist movement is that of idealism. This value is a little more self-explanatory. Between the Age of Reason and Transcendentalism was the Romanticism movement; similarly to the British Romantics, this movement focused on the use of creativity and imagination, something the Age of Reason obviously greatly strayed from. The focus of idealism in the transcendentalist way of thinking sought to continue to utilize the innovative, imaginative ideas from the previous Romantic Movement. The members of the transcendentalist movement hoped to break away from the strict confines of the Age of Reason, and bring society into a more ideal, enjoyable environment.

Divinity of Nature

The final essential transcendental value is the belief in the divinity of nature. Transcendentalists did not believe in organized religion, but they were very spiritual people. Remember how we said some of their original doctrines were based on the works of spiritual advisors and Hindu teachings? They believed that nature is sacred, and that it is imperative for individuals to connect with nature.

Transcendentalists were lovers of nature, and did not think it was something that could be controlled by anyone. Instead, they believed that the only thing people can control is what is in their own minds (remember their focus on individualism?). According to transcendentalists, if one senses a strong connection to nature, then he will be able to understand his oversoul and, in effect, be able to live a successful, complete life, free from any constraints placed upon him by conforming to society. The term oversoul is a transcendentalist term, which explains that everything is connected and thus happens for a reason; therefore, transcendentalists also believe that, since nature is divine, we must not interfere with it and leave it be as God intended.

Passage Analysis

Now that we have read and understood the three quintessential components of the transcendentalist movement, let's read and analyze a brief passage for its incorporation of these values. This is paragraph two of Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson.


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