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American Transcendentalism


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Title: American Transcendentalism

American Transcendentalism
American Transcendentalism
  • advocates reliance on romantic intuition and
    moral human conscience
  • Belief that humans can intuitively transcend the
    limits of the senses and of logic to a plane of
    higher truths
  • Value spirituality (direct access to benevolent
    God, not organized religion or ritual), divinity
    of humanity, nature, intellectual pursuits,
    social justice
  • Roughly 1830s-1850s

Spirit of Revivalism
  • Transcendentalism can be read as one of many
    spiritual revivals American culture fostered in
    antebellum years
  • Image Religious Camp Meeting, J. Maze Burbank,
    c. 1839

  • Nature the key to self-awareness
  • Open self to nature you may receive its gifts
    a deeper, more mystical experience of life
  • Nature offers a kind of gracesalvation from
    mundane evil of everyday life
  • Image Mont Blanc

Nature and Romanticism
  • External world of nature actually reflects
    invisible, spiritual reality
  • Self-reliance seek the truth in immediate
    perceptions of the world
  • Then one can reconcile body and soul (which is
    part of Universal Soul or Oversoul, source of
    all life)
  • Image Niagara Falls, Thomas Cole, 1829

The Sublime
  • Heightened psychological state
  • Overwhelming experience of awe, reverence,
  • Achieved when soul is immersed in grandeur of
  • Sense of transcendence from everyday world
  • Image Wanderer, Caspar David Friedrich

Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott HomesConcord,
Massachusetts, 1850s
Roots in American Unitarianism
  • Emerson a Unitarian minister
  • Unitarianism (Christian denomination) rises in
    late 1700s formalized by William Ellery
    Channing, early 1800s
  • Liberal churchbroken from strict New England
  • Reject total depravity of humanity
  • Believe in perfectibility of humanity
  • Reject idea of angry Godfocus on benevolent
  • UNITY of God rather than TRINITY of Father, Son,
    Holy Spirit

Emersons Break from Unitarianism
  • Too intellectualized, too removed from direct
    experience of God
  • Extend and radicalize Unitarian beliefs in
    benevolent God, closeness of God and humanity
  • Bring these spiritual ideas to life
  • If Unitarians believe that truth comes only
    through empirical study and rationality . . .
  • Transcendentalists take that idea add in
    romanticized mysticismhumankind capable of
    direct experience of the holy

Transcendentalism as Spiritual Revival
  • Ironic refiguring of Puritanism, without the
    theological dogma
  • Transcendentalists lonely explorers (pilgrims)
    outside society and convention
  • Trying to form new society based on metaphysical
  • Trying to purify society by purifying hearts and
  • Nature a spiritual manifesto
  • Image Ralph Waldo Emerson

Spiritual Revival
  • Transcendentalism is a pilgrimage from the
    idolatrous world of creeds and rituals to the
    temple of the Living God in the soul. It is a
    putting to silence of tradition and formulas,
    that the Sacred Oracle might be heard through
    intuitions of the singled-eyed and pure-hearted.
  • (William Henry Channing)

Spiritual Revival
  • That belief we term Transcendentalism . . .
    maintains that man has ideas, that come not
    through the five senses of the powers of
    reasoning, but are either the result of direct
    revelations from God, his immediate inspiration,
    or his immanent presence in the spiritual world.
  • (Charles Mayo Ellis, An Essay on
    Transcendentalism, 1842)

Spiritual Revival
  • Standing on the bare ground,my head bathed
    in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite
    space,all mean egotism vanishes. I become a
    transparent eye-ball I am nothing I see all
    the currents of the Universal Being circulate
    through me I am part or particle of God.
  • (Ralph Waldo Emerson,
    Nature, 1836)

The Transparent Eyeball
  • Image Christopher Pearse Cranch, parody of
    lines from Nature, 1838
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