Ralph Waldo Emerson
An American Transcendentalist

In Concord, Massachusetts, in the first half of the nineteenth century, a group of writers and philosophers proclaimed their eccentric dogma to the world. They were extremely zealous in their adherence to their ideology and in their determination to share their beliefs with others. They made no apologies regarding their conviction that they were right and anyone who disagreed with them was wrong. Their philosophy was known as Transcendentalism. As is the case with any philosophy, there is no definitive proof of the truthfulness or the absurdity of Transcendentalism—each individual must make a personal judgement.

But what is Transcendentalism? Exactly what Transcendentalism is or is not is a matter of debate—depending upon the perspective of the individual. Essentially, Transcendentalists believed that time and space are not external realities, or even concepts derived from external experience, but ways in which the mind constitutes its world of sense. Whatever transcends sensory experience—is transcendental. The ideas of God, of freedom, and of immortality, are inevitable intuitions of the practical nature of man—and these intuitions, since man is essentially a practical and moral being, are not merely sentimental but have genuine validity (Goddard 3). Transcendentalism was first and foremost, a doctrine concerning the human mind, and its ways of acting, and methods of getting knowledge. This philosophy taught the unity of the world in God and the immanence of God in the world. Because of this indwelling of divinity, every part of the world, however small, is a microcosm, comprehending within itself all the laws and meaning of existence. Therefore, the soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the world, and contains, latently, all which it contains. Through the beauty, truth, and goodness incarnate in the natural world, the individual soul comes in contact with and appropriates to itself the spirit and being of God (Goddard 4-5). They denied the existence of miracles, preferring Christianity to rest on the spirit of Christ, rather than on His supposed deeds (Burkholder 2). The Transcendentalists greatly admired, respected, and possibly even worshipped nature. They were the "tree huggers" of their day.

The philosophy of Transcendentalism had a distinct origin in Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781, and opened a new epoch in metaphysical thought (Frothingham 1). Kant, who was from Königsberg, Prussia, devoted his life to the study of philosophy. He was a serious student who spent many years in meditation, lecturing and writing (Frothingham 6). Kant was profoundly affected by John Locke’s "Essay on the Human Understanding" (Frothingham 3). In fact, Kant formed his initial philosophy because he so strongly disagreed with everything Locke stood for. Transcendentalists considered Locke’s philosophy to be sensationalism, the exact polar opposite of Transcendentalism. To them, calling a man a sensationalist was a polite way of informing him that he was an intellectual and spiritual dullard (Goddard 4).

Transcendentalism then spread to France where it was espoused by writers such as Conillac, Cabanis and Laromiguière. The philosophy soon afterward made its way to England, where it was embraced by the great English poets—Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Coleridge studied Kant’s writing extensively, as well as the writings of Eichhorn, Blumenbach and Schelling. Schelling especially influenced Coleridge, even to the point that Coleridge was accused of directly plagiarizing Schelling (Frothingham 79-81). Coleridge stated the following in his Biographia Literaria: "Philosophy is employed on objects of the inner sense, and cannot, like geometry, appropriate to every construction a corresponding outward intuition."

Wordsworth, as well, demonstrated by these lines from his famous poem "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" was a Transcendentalist:

That blessed mood
In which the burden of the mystery
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened - that serene and blessed mood
In which the affections gently lead us on
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul. (lines 38-47)

The next Transcendentalist movement of note is the Transcendentalists of New England, in particular, Concord, Massachusetts. There were several influential writers in this movement such as Channing, Alcott, Fuller, Parker, Thoreau and others—however, the focus of this paper will be upon Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson was born on May 25, 1803. He attended Harvard, during which time he began to keep his journals. He was ordained a minister of the Second Church of Boston, where he then served as associate pastor. He preached for a few years, but gradually began to establish himself as a successful lecturer. Emerson joined the organized Transcendentalists in 1836—most of whom were Harvard-educated Unitarian ministers, and soon became one of their leading advocates (Burkholder 1-2).

Emerson’s first book, Nature, was a rallying cry for Transcendentalism in that it viewed nature as a divine teacher of man (Burkholder 2). Emerson gives his definition of nature:

Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man—space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture. But his operations taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result (Whicher 22).

This would probably not seem "far out" to the average reader, but then Emerson demonstrates that the Transcendentalist dogma exceeds that of the mere appreciation of nature with the following:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God (Whicher 24).

Emerson has now crossed the line into metaphysical mysticism. He mentions God almost as an afterthought—saying that he is part of God. The idea that God is everything and everything is God departs significantly from traditional Christianity and The Bible; this concept is actually closer to eastern religions such as Buddhism.

Before I continue, I must clarify my personal point of reference. I am a Christian, who believes that God has dealt with mankind as He has—because He knows what He is doing. The Bible was given to us for a reason—to guide and instruct us. It is true that many passages in the Bible are open to interpretation, but there is a limit to how far that interpretation can be stretched without perverting the original ideology beyond recognition. Someone once asked me if I am conservative or liberal; I answered that I am usually fairly conservative in the way that I live my own life, but I am liberal in my tolerance of people whose opinions and lifestyles are different than my own. I honestly don’t care if Emerson hugged trees, but the guidelines of this assignment asked that I express my ideas and my conclusions—so I will.

In The Divinity School Address, Emerson lectures to the Harvard Divinity School. Emerson says the following regarding Jesus Christ:

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, "I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think" (Whicher 105).

Excuse me… but Jesus never said anything like that! In all that I have read that Emerson wrote, I have not yet found a single example of a direct quotation from the Bible. If he refers to anything remotely biblical, he does it with vague paraphrasing. Even a critic of a given philosophy should attack it head-on for what it truly is. Only a coward would cloud the issues with nebulous generalities.

Also, notice that Emerson does not capitalize the personal pronouns he, his, and himself, when referring to God, as is traditionally done. I considered the possibility that this was an editing error, but then I noticed that the word world was capitalized. I think that Emerson knew exactly what he was doing!

In my criticisms regarding Emerson, people immediately respond by proclaiming what a wonderful writer he was. I agree—he was an extraordinary writer. He had an amazing grasp of language. His technique for expressing his ideology in an understanding way is quite impressive. Does that mean that what he said was of equal value—just because he said it well. The answer to that question is NO!

Adolph Hitler was a great writer and a charismatic public speaker. He had an uncanny ability to influence people and convert people to his ideology. He wrote Mein Kampf while in prison and eventually came closer than anyone in history to taking over the entire world. I think I have made my point.

I drew these conclusions on my own, but I am not alone. I read several essays in the book Critical Essays on Ralph Waldo Emerson, and found that many of Emerson’s contemporaries shared my criticisms of Emerson and Transcendentalism.

Again, my perspective is that of a Christian who believes the Bible. I believe that Emerson was a false prophet, and therefore Transcendentalism is false doctrine. Although Emerson would not quote from the Bible—I will:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon (Matthew 6:24 KJV).

Either one is a Christian, or one is not. I commend the Transcendentalists for respecting nature, but worship should be directed not at the creation, but the creator.

Works Cited

Burkholder, Robert E., Joel Myerson. Critical Essays on Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983.

Frothingham, Octavius B. Transcendentalism in New England: A History. Boston:

American Unitarian Association, 1903.

Goddard, Harold Clarke, Studies in New England Transcendentalism. New York:

Humanities Press, 1969.

Whicher, Stephen E., ed. Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston:

Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957.