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The Great Transcendentalist Movement Essay, Research Paper

The Great Transcendentalist Movement

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, a new era was

developing in American society. The United States was an

idealistic nation with separate beliefs and lifestyles. One

of the most intriguing lifestyles introduced during this

time was transcendentalism. Many authors, such as Ralph

Waldo Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne, Walt Whitman and Henry

David Thoreau, developed this idea and tried to make people

understand the meaning behind this new way of lfe. Through

his extensive writings of books, essays and poetry, Thoreau

gave the American public a deep insight to the new world of


While he was growing up, Thoreau rarely left his birth

town of Concord. He felt that man didn?t need wider

horizons in order to write efficiently (Hoff, 31). He wrote

his private thoughts in journals to help him write lectures

and books, and never wrote or spoke about what he himself

had not experienced (Hoff, 32). Thoreau attened Harvard,

but believed that he had not really learned anything of

worth while there(Hoff, 34). This is surprising because

most people think of Thoreau as an intellectual, who most

definitely had a sound education that he appreciated.

Thoreau was a ?skilled naturalist (Whitman, 802)? who

was extremely knowledgable about weather, geology, flora and

fauna. He was known to be quite friendly with birds and

other such animals. He was a self-proclaimed mystic,

transcendentalist and natural philosopher. (Whitman, 802).

The first person to use the word ?transcendental? was

German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He used the term

?transcendental philosophy? to describe the study of pure

mind and its forms. The word ?transcendentalism? is defined

as the ?belief or doctrine asserting the existence of an

ideal spiritual reality that transcends the empirical and

scientific and is knowable through intuition (Koster, 1).?

It is also known as, in philosophy and literature, ?the

belief in a higher reality than that found in sense

experience or in a higher kind of knowledge than that

achieved by human reason (Encarta).? This idea originated

with the Greek philosopher, Plato, who had recognized the

existence of absolute righteousness.

American transcendentalism began with the formation of

the Transcendental Club in Boston in 1836. The leaders of

this movement included essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson,

feminist and social reformer Margaret Fuller, minister

Theodore Parker, teacher Bronson Alcott, philosopher William

Ellery Channing, and Thoreau. This club published a

magazine, The Dial, and some members performed an experiment

of communal living at Brook Farm in Massachusetts during the


The American roots of transcendentalism began in New

England with Puritanism. This was the idea that

transcendentalists were direct descendents of people that

fled to this region in search of religious freedom.

Another major influence of the transcendental movement

was platonism. This ideal held the supreme god as being

primary, with all other things derived from it.

Romanticism also played an important role in the

development of this new era. It was:

The delight in, and wonder at, the beauty and

beneficience of nature, the recognition of the

individual human being as being superior to

society, the concomitant objection to social

restraints upon the individual, and, above all,

the ascendency of emotion and intuitive perception

over reason (Koster, 8).

It also involved the celebration of individualism and


Another factor was that of Orientalism. Many people

believed that American interest in the Orient began as a

purely economic interest, but then moved on to other things

such as spirituality and morality.

Religious philosophers that appeared later applied

Plato?s idea of transcendentalism to the fact that God could

not be described nor understood through the voice of human

experience (Encarta). The Scholastics recognized six

transcendental concepts: essence, unity, goodness, truth,

thing and something.

The terms transcendent and transcendental were

used in a more narrow and technical sense by

Scholastic philosophers late in the Middle Ages to

signify concepts of unrestricted generality

applying to all types of things (Encarta).

?American Philosophy: Transcendentalism.?


Arpin, Gary Q. ?The American: Renaissance: The Literary Coming of Age.? Elements of

Literature. By Richard Sime. Fifth Course. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1997.


Crowell, Robert L. ?Thoreau, Henry David.? The Reader?s Encyclopedia of American

Literature. 1962 ed.

?Henry David Thoreau.? Why They Wrote: Dickens, Thoreau, Flaubert, Clemens,

Stevenson. By Rhoda Hoff. 1961. 31-60.

Koster, Donald N. Transcendentalism in America. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.

Microsoft Encarta 96 Encylclopedia (1996). [Computer program]. Redmond, WA:

Microsoft Corporation.

?Thoreau, Henry David.? American Reformers. By Alden Whitman. 801-03.

Thoreau, Henry David. ?Civil Disobedience.?


http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/474/. 5-3-99.


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