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America’s Introduction to Transcendental Beliefs

To trace the origin of the Transcendental movement one needs to go back to the city of Concord, Massachusetts. There during the early 19th century many well-known and world-renowned authors were following the practices of one man, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, who was considered America’s first philosopher, had earlier traveled to Europe and became fascinated by the concepts of one German philosopher known as Kant. According to Emerson’s understanding of Kant, there were two pure objects in the world in which are the bases of everything, nature and soul. He took this philosophy and brought it back to America where it later, with the help of Henry David Thoreau, revolutionized American literature.

With the spread of the Transcendental philosophy, people started to believe that the important things in life are not material but, in a much grander scale, spiritual. In order to live truly spiritual lives one must dispose of all unneeded items and resort to living a simplistic life. This simplicity can be found by using nature. All of nature is pure and in it lives the soul of God. Not only does this soul live in nature it is also built up in every human being, and to free it one needs to find the truth inside oneself. To do this a human being needs rid of all the extra items that keep them from living simple lives and then listening to one’s inner-self. Intuition and self-reliance are the paths to true happiness because once someone has freed the spirit of God within, nothing else is needed.

These beliefs of Transcendentalists were unofficially brought forth in Emerson’s Nature. Emerson went on to be the main source of most of transcendental belief’s exposure to the world by writing poetry and other forms of literature. He even founded the transcendental magazine, known as The Dial. In his collection of essays known as Self-Reliance, Emerson discusses the reasons for being a nonconformist, the proper reasons for travel, and the needless reliance on property. In his essay A Nonconformist, he states, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.” In this statement Emerson resolves to say that those who conform to follow the institutions of life can not be able to listen to the intuition which lies inside them. In his essay Traveling he points out that those who travel to find themselves are really running from them. To find oneself all you need to do is look within. In Reliance on Property, Emerson goes back to the theory of simplicity in stating that one who depends of material things can not live with their independence and self-reliance. He states, “And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on government which protects it, is the want of self-reliance.”

Henry David Thoreau was one of Emerson’s prot?g?s, but unlike Emerson, Thoreau acted on his beliefs instead of just writing them. He is known for only two literary works, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and his more publicly renown work Walden. Going along with the beliefs of nonconformity and simplicity Thoreau set off to live in the woods near Walden Pond. He stayed there for over 2 years writing down in his journal the day’s events and how he connected with nature more and more as each day went by. Thoreau wanted to “suck the marrow out of life”, and live life to the best of his ability. After his two years were up he left the woods with the same reason for going to them; he did not want to conform to a set pattern of life. After coming out of the woods, Thoreau explained in one of his most famous essays, Civil Disobedience, how the individual has a stronger power when independent than that of the government. He states, “That government is best that governs least.” He felt that one should turn from the law when it is using its power to do things that are disliked. In protesting this belief he failed to pay a government tax and peacefully went to jail for a day. In jail he was at ease saying that no one could ever lock up his soul. This type of protest, known as peaceful resistance, was later used by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

As the years have passed many people have come to live their lives according to the transcendental philosophy. The writings of these two authors and others in the transcendental movement, founded in the city of Concord, have opened new ideas and new ways of coping with one’s life. Even after the deaths of Emerson and Thoreau, their beliefs are still studied and practiced today.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” Prentice-Hall Literature: The American Experience.

Editors Eileen Thompson et al. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1991.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “from Self-Reliance.” America Reads: The United States in

Literature. Editors James E. Miller et al. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1985.

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