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Transcendentalism Essay, Research Paper
A literary and philosophical movement called transcendentalism developed in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. This movement is a reaction to certain eighteenth century rationalist doctrines and involves the rejection of strict Puritan religious attitudes. (Parrington 375). Transcendentalism is strongly influenced by Deism and opposes the strict ritualistic and dogmatic theology of all established religious institutions. (Parrington 375). Transcendentalist s of this period are opposed to weakening Calvinistic views regarding the corruption of human nature. (Parrington 375). Transcendentalism is described as a natural religion of democracy because it claims that divinity is in every human and therefore the universe. This suggestion that the individual is potentially divine can also support the religion of aristocracy. (Buell 168). The major influences are romanticism, idealism, self-examination, democratic individualism, nature, and mankind among others. (Parrington 375). Buell describes writings of this time as having a semi-religious focus toward nature and a direct link with the universe, individual, and self. (Buell 267).
The American writer Henry David Thoreau is considered to be the most representative writer of Transcendental thought. He writes philosophical essays in which he describes nature and individualism and writes of civil disobedience in literature for the very first time. (Eulau 119). Thoreau s essay, also called Resistance to Civil Government is considered to be one the most famous political essays representing Transcendentalism of the era. (Vivas 317). This essay is published anonymously, but major writers of this period recognize him as the author. (Hyman 24).
There are over twenty five tenets of American Transcendentalism, however there are basic principles universally held by all transcendentalists. (Ruben 2). Thoreau writes about some of these elements in Civil Disobedience . The first holds the individual as the spiritual center of the universe who ultimately holds the key to the cosmos itself. (Ruben 2). Every individual is to be respected because all of us have a part of the Oversoul in ourselves. (Ruben 4). Thoreau suggests thisbelief of individualism and self because he does not reject Goddirectly, but describes the individual and the world in terms of the individual. (Ruben 2). The second element states that the structure of the universe duplicates the structure of the individual self and all knowledge, therefore begins with self- knowledge. (Ruben 2). Thoreau strongly believes the individual and his relationship with nature is foremost to self-knowledge and compares this belief to Aristotle s know thyself . (Ruben 2). His claim is that we must know the world around us to tell us what we are and through this awakening we begin to know ourselves. (Drake 74). The third element accepts the neo-Platoic ideal that nature is a living mystery and symbolic, full of signs. (Ruben 2). Thoreau s life and writings center on nature and the outdoors, and he suggests that human life is symbolic of nature mirroring our psyche. (Ruben 3). Finally, transcendentalism asserts that individual virtue and happiness depend upon self-realization, to know and become one with the world, or to withdraw and remain unique and separate. (Ruben 2). The proposition is that the external is united with the internal, which gives an individual their temperament or mood, good or bad. Rubens explains that if I feel lousy, I may dismiss the gorgeous day . (Ruben 2).
It is felt that a man can find himself by looking to nature, and a man can only know himself by his relationship with the outdoors. (Drake 74). Thoreau believes that the universe is wider that our views of it, and the word God disappears from his vocabulary and he refers to a vague and anonymous force to be responsible for the universe. (Drake 72). The government and citizens during this period are greatly influenced by the religious principles of Puritanism, especially predestination. The religious thought that an individual receives divine guidance immediately differs from the transcendentalist view. (Drake 75). This influence is evident in Thoreau s example that if you were to have ten men write a journal for one day, nine would leave out their personal thoughts and lose themselves by misreporting the supposed experiences of other people. (Buell 278). He attributes this to their inability to synthesize or articulate their perceptions without spiritual reflection or significance. Thoreau concludes that thoughts of different dates will not cohere. (Buell 278). He argues that human evolution also includes spiritual evolution and it is the entrenched tradition, culture and ritual of religion that hold men back. (Buell 278). Thoreau writes Civil Disobedience to some extent for his failure as a recluse from society. (Eulau 121). He also expresses his concerns about the proslavery attitude of the American government and wants others to follow his examples. (Vivas 317). His first act of political disobedience by failing to pay taxes is considered to be ridiculous because he does not risk anything of significance by his one night stay in jail. (Eulau 119). He explains going to jail in support of humanistic ideals is not a negative thing, but a positive act because it brings the attention of all good people to an evil law, which will eventually bring about it s repeal. (Thoreau 1710). He writes his objections, arguing that when civil law and higher law, or one s conscious, come into conflict, it is the duty of a good citizen to disobey the civil law, even if it means going to jail. (Parrington 374). If enough good citizens are put in jail it will overburden the system and make the evil law unenforceable. (Hyman 24). Thoreau writes, action from principle not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine . (Thoreau 1710). He suggests no man should be bound to the law because man is self-reliant, complete and independent. The Dictionary of Literary Biography describes Civil Disobedience as the philosophy of the Founding Fathers of this county to it s logical conclusion, and thus it is sometimes referred to as the Declaration of Independence for the Conscience. (DBL 174).
Thoreau refers to Thomas Jefferson s quote that government is best which governs least . In placing the individual citizen above the state Jefferson attacks the autocratic state, not the democratic state he helps to bring about. (Eulau 118). Thoreau is the opposite of Jefferson because he attacks democracy in the belief that it is not strong, but weak because a single man can bend it s will . (Eulau 119). He believes each man can decide for himself what is right and just. He represents himself as an idealist with inconsistent views on the limits of involvement by a government. Later, he contradicts his principles by suggesting not at once no government, but at once a better government . (Thoreau 1705).
Thoreau contends that men have lost the free will to make individual decisions regarding war, slavery, and domestic issues because government imposes on its citizens only in it s own self interests. (Thoreau 1706). He states government loses it s integrity when willing to consider profit over the interests of it s citizen s, and basic human rights such as slavery and war. (Thoreau 1707). He considers slavery as a hateful and stupid enterprise . (Eulau 119). Thoreau feels such deep disgrace being associated with a government who condones slavery, that he refuses to vote, pay taxes, and makes his only contact with this government the tax collector. (Eulau 121). Thoreau personally does not want to be bothered with the issues of government or slavery, but because of his writings he is sought out by Abolitionists to give speeches for them. He feels idealism, individualism and democracy are not achievable in a society willing to maintain slaves. (Eulau 123). He is obsessed with right, truth and justice for all citizens and encourages nonviolent resistance as the means to effectively abolish slavery. (Eulau 124). This position is different than most Abolitionists of the time. During this time most of his attention is directed at the southern slaves states. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 is the event that leads him to become detached from the State. The treatment of a runaway slave weighs heavily on his emotions. His anger leads him to encouragepeople to withdraw farther from the State and it s policies. (Eulau 124). He alleges citizens are inadvertently giving aid and support to the government by not refusing their existence by withdrawing in acts of passive revolution. (Eulau 121). These actions by the State lead him to actively criticize slavery.Thoreau holds individualism, self-knowledge and self-realization are the basic elements of transcendentalism. He uses individualism in his essay by describing that a state must lose its coercive sovereignty in such a way that the law of society will function freely. (Parrington 375). The individual must voluntarily concede himself to the economic and political arms of society but moral law is the basic law and is superior to statutes and constitutions. He believes citizens of this society commit themselves to allegiance. (Parrington 375). He implies that no government can have any right over a person or property unless one will concede to it. (Thoreau 1711). His idea of self-knowledge or realization is based on his belief in keeping in touch with the one subject and source of his being. He is a self-conscious romantic and realizes he cannot achieve perfect sharing with nature. His spiritual concerns and imagination will divert him from nature to higher and different worlds. (McIntosh 407). He tries to exist in a place between his mind and nature. His imagination does not separate him from nature but helps him to relate to it. He tries to place the spirit, body, intellectual conscious and unconsciousness into harmonious relations. (McIntosh 407). His examples of undue respect for law are soldiers going to war regardless of their personal feelings. He emphasizes their loss of conscience and what they know to be right. (Vivas 317). Self-knowledge and realization for Thoreau is that there is no abstract state, society, or nation, only individuals; and to both, the fundamental law is the law of morality. (Vivas 317).
In conclusion, the precepts of individualism, self-knowledge and self-realization are some of the elements of transcendentalism found in Civil Disobedience . Thoreau writes this essay partially in support of the Northern Abolitionist. The more he is involved the more frustrated he becomes with the issue of slavery. (Eulau 123). He feels an individual has a duty to follow his own conscious which would lead to mutual tolerance and human cooperation. Thoreau is closed minded to the democratic process of compromise and adjustment. (Eulau 127). Although his writings suggest nonviolent resistance to an undesirable event, he can foresee circumstances where violent methods of resistance are unavoidable. (Eulau 127). Thoreau s writings have been an inspiration to many non-violent revolutionaries such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Each of them used Thoreau s methods as their means to pass their message to mankind. The concept which suggests that the external is united with the internal is the focus of his writing. That man as a subject, nature the object, which shares the same divine constitution as himself, offers external images to the ideas of the man s soul. (Ruben 2).
Buell, Lawrence, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1973. 168, 267, 278.
Drake, William Walden. Thoreau, A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1962. 72-75.
Eulau, Heinz, Wayside Challenger: Some Remarks on the Politics of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1962. 118-124, 127.
Hyman, Stanley E., Henry Thoreau In Our Time. Thoreau, A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1962. 24.
McIntosh, James, in his Thoreau As Romantic Naturalist: His Shifting Stance toward Nature, Cornell University Press. 1974. 310. Rpt. in Nineteenth Century Literary Criticisms, Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris, et al. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1985. 407. 42 vols.
Parrington, Vernon L., Henry Thoreau-Transcendental Economist, in his Mail Currents in American Thought, an Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920: The Romantic Revolution in America, 1800-1860, Vol. 2, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927. 392-406. Rpt. in Nineteenth Century Literary Criticisms, Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris, et al. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1985. 374-376. 42 vols.
Reuben, Paul P. Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism: An Introduction. PAL: Perspectives in American Literature – A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap4/4intro.html. June 10, 1998. 2-4.
Thoreau, Henry D., et al. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Civil Disobedience. 4th Ed. Vol. 1, New York: W. W. Norton and Company. 1994. 1705-1711.
Henry David Thoreau. Dictionary of Literary Biography. American Renaissance in New England: Colonization to the American Renaissance, 1640-1865. Detroit: 1978. 174.
Vivas, Eliseo. Thoreau: The Paradox of Youth. In the New Student, Vol. 7, No. 23. (March 7, 1928) 5-8, 15. Rpt. in
Nineteenth Century Literary Criticisms, Ed. Janet Mullane, et al. Vol. 21. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1989. 317-318. 42 vols.
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