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Transcendentalism And Emerson Essay, Research Paper

Mrs. McKenny

English 10 Honors

May 15, 2000

Transcendentalism and Ralph Waldo Emerson

So what is Transcendentalism anyway and how have men s thoughts and outlooks been able make it what it is remembered as?

I. Ralph Waldo Emerson

A. Emerson s Life

1. Childhood

2. Adulthood

B. Emerson s thoughts and views

1. Thoughts on resolutions

2. Views of people

3. Feelings about the universe and soul

II. Transcendentalism

A. History

1. When it occurred

a. what was going on around the time of transcendentalism?

b. How did these events affect its development

2. Where it comes from

a. where did Emerson get his ideas?

b. What cultures influenced the philosophy?

B. The movement

1. The transcendentalists

2. What views were they trying to influence upon Americans?

3. The Transcendental Club

a. Members

b. What was its purpose?

C. The Philosophy

1. What was Transcendentalism about?

2. What beliefs did transcendentalists have?

3. What about these beliefs did they try to influence upon people?

Transcendentalism and Ralph Waldo Emerson


Transcendentalism was a literary movement that began in the beginning of the 1800 s and lasted up until the Civil War. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a man whose views on life and the universe were intriguing and influential. Emerson, along with other great men, helped to mold what Transcendentalism was and what it was to become. Without these men, Transcendentalism would not have been anything. Nor would these men have been anything without this concept. So what is Transcendentalism anyway and how have men s thoughts and outlooks been able make it what it is remembered as?

Transcendentalism was prominent in the cultural life of the U.S., especially in New England from 1836 to until just before the Civil War. The Revolutionary war had ended shortly before the time of Transcendentalism; therefore, Emerson had been influenced by its affects and had shared his thoughts about war in his writings. At the age of twelve, Emerson wrote Fair Peace and Triumph blooms on golden wings, and War no more pf all his victories sings ( Way to Peace 2). He viewed war as being unnecessary and in his eyes, the soul has no enemies and rises above all conflicts. He thought soldiers to be ridiculous and war to Abhorrent to all reason ( Way to Peace 2), and against human progress. Basically he was against all war and his views on war were apparent in his writings. Even though he thought that the Civil War was good because it was trying to stop the evils of slavery, he detested the lack of freedom during the war, and he vowed that if martial law came to Concord, that he would disobey it or move away. These events developed Transcendentalism though Emerson s views and writings on war ( Way to Peace 1-2).

Transcendentalism in America centered in Concord and Boston. The philosophy came from many different beliefs and people s thoughts and outlooks. Emerson was a huge person whose beliefs greatly influenced how transcendentalism evolved. Around the year 0f 1836, a discussion group was formed in New England called the Transcendental Club. It met at various members houses and it included Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Frederick Henry Hedge, W. E. Channing and W. H. Channing, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, George Ripley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, and Jones Very. From 1840 to 1844, a quarterly newspaper printed their early essays, poems, and reviews (Abrams, 215-216).

Emerson s transcendentalism is an idealist philosophy that was derived from Kant s concept of the Tran scendental. According to his understanding of Kant, transcendentalism becomes a union of solipsism under which the only verifiable reality is thought to be self. It also comes from materialism in which the only verifiable reality is thought to be quantifiable outside world of objects, and sense data. Through this fusion, transcendentalism was transported to America as a philosophy. Through his source of most of its poetry and mysticism, Emerson fostered the growth of transcendentalism of the New England variant. His ideas, which came from Kant, were taken from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant whose ideas of the universe and soul were very intriguing. He believed in transcendental knowledge but confined it to things such as time, space, quantity and casualty, which in his views were imposed by the perception of human minds. He regarded these aspects as the universal sense experience. Emerson, however, extended this concept of transcendental knowledge to include moral and other truths that go beyond the limits of the human sense experience, which Kant had specifically denied. Besides Kant, other intellectual predecessors of American Transcendentalism are very diverse and few, but include post-Kantian German Idealists, the English thinkers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle (who were also exponents of German Idealism), Plato, Neoplatonists, the occult Swedish theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg, and some varieties of Oriental philosophies (Abrams 216).

Basically, Transcendentalism was about promoting peace and developing the mind and soul. Also, it was about sharing your views on what was wrong with the world and how it could be fixed. William Ellery Channing was a forerunner of the Transcendentalists and preached against war and was active in the peace movement that began in 1815 when Noah Worcester founded the Massachusetts Peace Society, the first influential peace society in the world. Channing wrote about the miseries and crimes of war, their causes and some possible remedies. In addition to the suffering and destruction he points out that war corrupts the morals of society and gives the government dangerous powers. Channing preached in Boston from 1803 until his death and was praised by Emerson above all other ministers. The sources of war which Channing wrote of are the human propensity for excitement, the lust for power, admiration for warlike deeds, false patriotism, and the upbringing and education which glamorizes military exploits. He also sees the remedies as well as the causes to be of a moral nature. He believes we must honor our rulers and nations fro their justice, goodwill, and educational institutions not for their foreign conquests. He thought that we must also admire heroes for their conscience, human rights, and the ones who bring peace and freedom. He believed that the peace teachings of Christians ought to be emphasized. He warned that the attitude of rulers and nations of foreign states, which is usually partial and unjust, should show us that war is rarely just or unnecessary. He advised Christians to refuse war and if necessary, submit to prison or execution in an attempt for peace ( Way to Peace 1-2).

James Freeman Clarke once dubbed the transcendentalists the ” club of the likeminded; I suppose because no two of us think alike ( American Literary Movements 1). But despite the disagreement among transcendentalists themselves, the overall movement shared similar philosophies. These philosophies rested on the Slockean concept of Idealism and Kant’s belief in intuition. In other words, transcendentalism opposed empiricism, which is gaining knowledge from experience. Physical world observations were only appearances of reflections of the spirit. One should learn of the spiritual world through reason alone, thus guiding them towards the ultimate goal, Absolute Truth ( American Transcendentalism1 1).

All of the Transcendentalists had more in common with what they reacted against rather than what they proposed. They were opposed to rigid rationalism; to the eighteenth-century empirical philosophy of the school of John Locke which derived all of its knowledge by sense impressions; by highly formalized religions, and especially the Calvinist orthodoxy of New England; and to the social conformity, materialism, and commercialism that they found increasingly prominent in American life. The counter-views that were affirmed by Transcendentalists, especially Emerson include confidence in the validity of knowledge which is tied in with feeling and intuition, and an ethics of individualism that stressed self trust, self-reliance, and self sufficiency (Abrams 216).

Transcendentalism cannot be properly understood outside the context of Unitarianism, the dominant religion in Boston during the early nineteenth century. Unitarianism had developed during the late eighteenth century as a branch of the liberal wing of Christianity during the First Great Awakening of the 1740 s. That awakening revolved around the questions of divine election and original sin, and it saw a brief period of revivalism. The Liberals tended to reject both the Orthodox belief in natural evil and the emotionalism of the revivalists. In a sort of incorporation of Enlightenment principles with American Christianity, they began to stress the value of intellectual reason as the path to divine wisdom. This is how transcendentalism began to emerge; the Liberalists began to make their own unique theological contribution in rejecting the doctrine of the divine trinity. Transcendentalism is a belief in a higher reality than that found in sense experience, or belief in a higher kind of knowledge than achieved by human reason. Transcendentalism revolves around the existence of absolute goodness, something beyond description and knowable, ultimately only through intuition. In it s most specific usage; Transcendentalism refers to a literary and philosophical movement that developed in the United States. Emerson separated the universe into two categories, nature and soul. He sought to explain the interrelation of them. He called analogies man s key to these relations ( American Transcendentalism2 1-2).

The term Transcendentalism became applied almost exclusively to doctrines of metaphysical idealism. Transcendentalism opposed the strict ritualism and rigid theology of established religious institutions. Transcendentalist writers expressed semi-religious feelings toward nature, as well as the creative process believing that divinity permeated all objects. Intuition rather than reason, were regarded as the highest human faculty. It was believed in order to comprehend the divine, God, and the universe one must transcend or go beyond the physical and emotional description of normal human thought.

That you must go to the level of the soul and once there it is believed that all people have access to divine inspiration and sought and loved freedom and knowledge and truth ( American Transcendentalism2 3-5)

The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own ( American Transcendentalism2 6-7).


Transcendentalism was a literary movement on the mid 1800 s in which Ralph Waldo Emerson took a great part. He contributed many fabulous ideas into the philosophy and influenced many people to put some remarkable ideas and writings in to Transcendentalism. He was the source of most of its poetry and mysticism, and fostered growth of the New England variant. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the son of a Unitarian Minister, was born on May 25, in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1821, he graduated from Harvard College. He got married in 1829, but his wife died less than a year and a half later. At this time in his life, Emerson doubted his beliefs and profession as a minister. He decided to resign, stating that it was because of the Eucharist ( Biography of Emerson 1-2).

In 1832, he went to Europe where he met some noteworthy people such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carle. He began giving public lectures, and in 1836, he published Nature. He had become the sage of Concord and his literary colleagues became known as the Transcendental Club. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in order to comprehend the divine, God, and the universe, one must transcend or go beyond the physical and emotional descriptions of normal human thought ( American Literary Movements 1). With these strong thoughts, Emerson became the leader of many philosophers and writers termed transcendentalists. He ignited a literary movement influencing Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau ( American Literary Movements 2).

Emerson had many great writings, which influenced many and shared his thoughts with the world. His great thinking influenced many and made people realize that peace is important to a high society. Some of his thoughts include:

A peaceful nation is protected by its spiritual power, because everyone is its friend. In individual cases it is extremely rare that a person of peace ever attracts violence. Courage must be transferred from war to the cause of peace; cowards can attain nothing great. The search for the sublime laws of morals and the sources of hope and trust, in man, and not in books, in the present, and not the past, and hopes that these will bring war to an end. ( The Way to Peace 3-4)

Emerson was also a great writer. His first publication Nature showed his idea of Transcendentalism. He applied this type of thinking to most of his works. In 1841, his first volume of essays, including the majority of his most popular work such as Self-Reliance , Prudence , Heroism , and Art . In 1847 to 1848, he went back to England and lectured. He made a collaborative volume called Representative Men (1850). This collection is one of his best works and contains fantastic essays on famous philosophers and writers such as Plato. He once described war as An epidemic of insanity, breaking out here and there like cholera or influenza, infecting men s brains instead of their bowels ( Way to Peace 2). Besides being a great speaker revolutionist and writer, Emerson was also a very recognizable poet. His last collection of poetry was called May Day and Other Pieces, written in 1867. After this, he stopped writing for duration of time. His mental capabilities went downhill, and a few years later wrote Society and Solitude (1870) and Parnassus (1874), both poetic works. Sadly, Ralph Waldo Emerson died in 1882, remembered as a great philosopher, writer, and a leader of mankind ( Biography of Emerson 1-2).

Transcendentalism was a great literary movement. In fact it was more than just a literary movement, it was a liberator of mankind. Without the influences of Transcendentalism, many of the great writers in American History would not have been as great, and there would be less hope for the future. The important issues that the Transcendentalists addressed were important for the people of that time to pay attention to, and end the corruption of war. Unfortunately, the transcendental movement, with its optimism about the indwelling divinity, self-sufficiency, and high potentialities of human nature, did not survive the crisis of the Civil War and its aftermath. The end of a great literary movement had arrived, but was the beginning of more to come (Abrams 217)?


Emerson s Concord home and a picture of him.

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brau

Jovanovich College Publishers, 1985.

American Literary Movements: Transcendentalism. Oct. 1999


American Transcendentalism. (1). Oct. 1999 (10/6/99).

American Transcendentalism. (2). May 2000 (5/29/00).

Biography of Emerson. < http:/members.xoom.com/_XMCM/RWEmerson/ whoisheohtm.

The Way to Peace. Oct. 1999


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