Transcendentalism Background Information

Transcendentalism Background Information

Transcendentalism  Background  Information     In  the  1830s,  Ralph  Waldo  Emerson,  a  prominent  Unitarian  minister,  left  the  church   to  ...

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  In  the  1830s,  Ralph  Waldo  Emerson,  a  prominent  Unitarian  minister,  left  the  church   to  seek  a  more  meaningful  religious  experience.  Emerson  argued  that  individuals   could  discover  truth  and  God  within  themselves  without  belonging  to  a  church  or   holding  to  a  particular  set  of  religious  beliefs.  He  began  to  lecture  and  write  about   religion  and  the  world,  and  formed  a  discussion  group  with  other  men  and  women   who  had  also  broken  from  the  church.  This  group  of  people  accepted  Emerson’s  idea   that  truth  “transcends”  (or  goes  beyond)  what  people  observe  with  their  senses  in   the  physical  world.  They  called  their  group  the  Transcendental  Club,  and  soon  they   established  a  new  religious,  philosophical,  and  literary  movement.  At  first  focusing   on  the  “inner  self,”  many  Transcendentalists  later  became  involved  in  social  reform.       And  so  Transcendentalism  was  born.  In  the  words  of  Ralph  Waldo  Emerson,  "We   will  walk  on  our  own  feet;  we  will  work  with  our  own  hands;  we  will  speak  our  own     minds...A  nation  of  men  will  for  the  first  time  exist,  because  each  believes  himself     inspired  by  the  Divine  Soul  which  also  inspires  all  men."     Henry  David  Thoreau  joined  Emerson’s  circle  of  Transcendental  friends,  and  built  a   hut  at  Walden  Pond  on  property  owned  by  Emerson.  For  a  few  years,  Thoreau  lived   off  the  land,  meditated,  and  wrote  about  nature.  Thoreau  agreed  with  Emerson’s   view  that  reform  begins  with  the  individual,  and  began  to  stop  paying  his  taxes  in   protest  against  slavery.  The  tax  collector  ignored  his  tax  evasion  until  Thoreau   began  to  publicly  condemn  the  U.S.  invasion  and  occupation  of  Mexico.  Thoreau  was   then  arrested  for  tax  evasion  and  spent  a  night  in  jail.  Thoreau  wrote  his  famous   essay,  “Civil  Disobedience”  after  this  night  in  jail.  Thoreau’s  minor  act  of  defiance  led   him  to  conclude  that  it  was  not  enough  to  simply  be  against  slavery  and  the  war.   Thoreau  decided  that  a  person  of  conscious  needed  to  act.  Unlike  other  advocates  of   civil  disobedience  like  Martin  Luther  King,  Jr.,  Thoreau  did  not  rule  out  using   violence  against  an  unjust  government.       Transcendentalists  believed  in  the  unity  of  all  creation  and  that  human  nature   contained  something  that  transcended,  or  went  beyond,  ordinary  experience.  They   believed  that  every  person  was  divine,  and  so  to  trust  or  rely  on  the  self  was  to  trust   God  who  spoke  within  us.  Transcendentalists  maintained  that  through  intuition  we   transcend  the  limits  of  our  senses  and  reason  and  come  to  know  higher  truths.     Themes  of  Transcendentalism:     Universal  Spirit:  Emerson  found  divine  energy  in  all  living  things.  Emerson  called   this  energy  the  universal  spirit,  universal  consciousness,  over-­‐soul,  or  God.  In   Emerson’  s  way  of  thinking,  this  universal  spirit  gave  all  life  meaning  and  purpose.   From  it  came  all  truth,  beauty,  and  goodness.  Emerson  believed  that  God  was   present  in  every  form  in  nature,  as  well  as  in  every  human  being,  regardless  of  race,  

religion,  or  social  status.  Transcendentalists  believed  that  everyone  needed  to  find   and  form  their  own  meaningful  relationship  with  the  universal  spirit.     Self-­‐Reliance/  Intuition:  Emerson  counseled  his  followers  to  seek  God  by  looking     inward.  Individuals  should  rely  on  their  own  heart  and  moral  compass  to  guide  their   lives.  He  advised  followers  to  “trust  your  intuition,”  since  the  source  of  this  insight   was  God.       Self  and  Society:  Emerson  rejected  the  Puritan  belief  that  all  humans  are  born  as   sinful  creatures.  He  held  a  much  more  optimistic  view  that  all  men  and  women   possessed  a  natural  capacity  to  do  good  and  for  society  to  progress.  Emerson  taught,   however,  that  individuals  would  first  have  to  reform  themselves  before  they  could   change  society.  Transcendentalists  believed  that  social  activism  was  a  direct  result   of  an  increased  relationship  with  God  and  self.       Direct  Relationship  with  God  and  Nature:  Transcendentalists  believed  that  man   had  removed  himself  too  far  from  enjoying,  appreciating,  and  learning  from  Nature.   They  believed  that  in  nature  you  could  fully  commune  with  God,  learn  of  your   relationship  in  the  world,  and  eschew  modern  conveniences  in  favor  of  using  your   mind  to  help  you  learn  higher  truths  about  the  human  experience.       Transcendental  influence  went  beyond  literature:     Transcendental  reformers  took  Emerson’s  advice  to  “Be  an  opener  of  doors  for   those  who  come  after  us;”  and  they  were  able  to  open  doors  for  many  others  to   discover  their  own  paths  to  a  better  America.  Transcendental  ideas  later  opened  the   door  for  the  abolition  of  slavery,  women’s  rights,  progressive  education,  and  in  the   1960’s,  Martin  Luther  King,  Jr.  and  anti-­‐Vietnam  war  activists  revived   Transcendental  arguments  for  civil  disobedience.