Back To CourseIntroduction to Humanities: Help and Review
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Beth has taught high school English for 7 years. She has a master's degree in Education Leadership.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now that we have read through this paragraph, let's look for lines that show Emerson discussing the importance of being an individual. Did you notice that the very first line is a direct reference to this: 'there is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for the better, for worse…' This line is a perfect illustration of the transcendentalist belief in the importance of individualism; it explicitly states that one must choose to be himself rather than emulate any other person for if he chooses to mimic another's actions it is a form of suicide (though not in the literal sense, of course).
Although Emerson's message throughout the entire passage describes all three values, the overall theme is that of the necessity of the belief in idealism. Throughout the paragraph, Emerson uses aphorisms describing how if people changed the ways in which they act to the 'ideal' way, then the world would be a better place, and we could all live in harmony. Is that not the very definition of the value of idealism?
Similarly to the value of idealism, the passage discusses the importance of the divinity of nature in numerous instances. However, no line displays this value better than 'the wide universe is full of good,' which can be found in the middle of the first sentence. This line is obviously self-explanatory and speaks to the very essence of the value that nature is divine.
It is no wonder that Emerson is referred to, and remembered as, one of the most influential members of the transcendentalist movement.
To summarize this lesson, it is important that you remember that the Transcendentalist Movement was a philosophical era that followed the Age of Reason and the Romantic Movement in America. It was created as a way for writers, thinkers, and philosophers to rebel against the norm, and its three essential values still followed today are individualism, idealism, and the divinity of nature.
Individualism was important to them because they believed thinking for oneself is more important than conforming to society. They believed in idealism because they wanted to continue to use the creativity and imagination that was so popular during the Romanticism movement. They also believed firmly in the Divinity of Nature because they thought of nature as a sacred space and believed it very important for men to connect with nature.
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Back To CourseIntroduction to Humanities: Help and Review
42 chapters | 550 lessons
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