What is “Transcendentalism” and why should Americans care? I have tried to remind our group each time that we have met to discuss the past few philosophers like: Thomas Paine, William James and now Ralph Waldo Emerson; that we don’t really study American Philosophy to learn something new. Rather, we study it to better understand ourselves. “Nosce te ipsum,” is the phrase in Latin. And it is impossible to “know yourself” without knowing the biases of your own culture. And even if you aren’t an environmentalist; the transcendentalist movement — held-together by the titanic presence of Ralph Waldo Emerson — continues to impact your viewpoint of both God and nature.
Why is this so? Because western culture, at least since the fall of Constantinople, has purged the largely Gnostic or Pantheistic idea that the mysteries of God, and His Truth, could not be found by just any man alone through the contemplation of His Creation. As the works of the Neo-Platonists were reintroduced to the west at that time, the apologists kept the rigor of the dialectic and even the largely-dualistic idealism of Plato, but rejected the idea that God Himself was present in nature. Rather, they saw God as an intelligence that was perfect and separate from our imperfect world. And, more importantly, man needed an intercessor to know God’s Truths. Each man on his own couldn’t interpret the word of God without help.
And so, transcendentalist thought was a type of revival of a Pantheism, which revered the universe “itself” as a manifestation of God. And, while this pantheistic view is not truly held by even a majority of environmentalists today, a clear majority of Americans do believe that they can see and feel God’s presence in nature. And Americans believe that this idea is a given in Western thought, when it is not. Eastern religions are far more likely to concur with this view than the European West.
And this pantheistic notion is not the only contribution Emerson impressed into our society. Transcendentalism also strongly asserts the power of the individual! See how Emerson exalts the individual:
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.”
In the quotation above, I believe that Emerson failed to capitalize the words “Absolutely Trustworthy,” and reveal that he was speaking of the way that the divine works its will through each of us. Read it again and see how important it is that the individual direct his life to live in accordance with nature, his special nature, or in accordance with God’s plan for his life. And remember too that God is present in all things to a transcendentalist.
Attached are my notes for the meeting next week, Wednesday, April 4th.
Give the audiobook a listen on Youtube, if you don’t have time to read. The link is below.