"Transcendentalism is an American literary and philosophical movement that developed in New England in the 1830s and '40s...Transcendentalism [emphasizes] individual intuition as a central means of understanding reality. Keyed to this idea [is] a belief in the presence of God in nature... The individual's soul mirrors the world's soul, and we can arrive at these truths by communing with the beauty and goodness of nature " (Quinn).
History of Transcendentalism
The transcendental movement took place during the 1830s to the late 1840s. It was born out of a divide in the Unitarian church. Transcendentalists wanted to grow out of Lockean thinking that had begun to dominate the time period. This limited type of thinking was especially evident at Harvard where many of the Transcendentalists were educated. The most prominent way to educate at the time was through "recitation" where words and lessons were just recited but were never truly learned. This kind of learning discouraged individual thinking (Bickman). Transcendentalism was also influenced by the romantic movement in Europe during the American and French revolutions. The connection with nature and the importance of the individual interested many of the transcendentalists (Ackermann). Ralph Waldo Emerson formed the Transcendental Club in Concord and is known as the founder of Transcendentalism (Linge).
Romantic Movement: a movement in literature and art during the late 18th and early 19th centuries that celebrated nature rather than civilization; "Romanticism valued imagination and emotion over rationality"(The Free Dictionary).
Unitarianism: "believed in the "unity" of God instead of the traditional conception of God as a "trinity" of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost...preached that people were good, or at least capable of being good...embraced reform movements and the advances of science, viewing them as society's movements toward goodness" ("Unitarian Church")
Transcendentalists and Social Issues
- Industrial Revolution- The transcendentalists strongly disagreed with the Industrial Revolution (Ackermann). The industrial revolution was replacing human workers with machines and was erasing the importance of individuality due to the uniform machines and production.
- Abolition- Transcendentalists were very opposed to slavery. Harmony with nature was a very important belief of the transcendentalists (Glass). They believed this harmony should be applied to individuals and society, including the relationship between African-Americans and whites (Glass). They viewed moral laws as the most important laws of life. Thus, "they opposed slavery as a violation of this higher law, since man was meant to be free. No man-made law or constitution, as they saw it, could make such an institution right" (Ledbetter). Thoreau was one of the biggest supporters of abolition. He even allowed runaway slaves to stay at his Walden cabin on their way to traveling to Canada for freedom (Otfinoski).
- Women's Rights- One of the most motivated transcendentalists for women's rights was Margaret Fuller. Fuller's book Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845) is a prime example of her belief in equality for women (Linge). She also held "women-only philosophy seminars...in Boston between 1839 and 1844"(Linge). Also demonstrating their commitment to the issues, "transcendentalists wrote about slavery and women's rights... as frequently as they did about philosophical or religious ideas" (Glass). Individuality is an important part of transcendentalism and also relates to individual rights of women and African Americans.
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