The philosophy of transcendentalism

The philosophy of transcendentalism originated in Unitarianism, the predominant religious movement in Boston in the early 19th century. Unitarianism was a liberal Christian sect that emphasized rationality, reason, and intellectualism; it was especially popular at Harvard.
The transcendentalists who established the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1836—mostly Unitarian clergy and Boston-area intellectuals—did not reject Unitarianism but yearned for a more spiritual experience to balance out the emphasis on pure reason. The very word transcendentalism refers to a spirituality that transcends the realm of rationality and the material world. Transcendentalists believed that humans were fundamentally good but corrupted by society and that they should therefore strive for independence and self-reliance.

Photos of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson
Left, Henry David Thoreau; right, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Image credits: left, Wikimedia Commons; right, Wikimedia Commons
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two of the most famous transcendentalists. In 1845, Thoreau moved to a cabin that he built on Walden Pond in Massachusetts and lived there for two years, two months, and two days. He chronicled the experience in his book Walden, published in 1854, which explored the themes of nature, spirituality, self-reliance, and the simple life. Thoreau acknowledged the debt transcendentalism owed to Indian religious beliefs.

Black and white photograph of Walden Pond
Thoreau’s view of Walden Pond. Image credit
Emerson gained fame as an essayist and public lecturer; his 1836 essay “Nature” laid out many of the tenets of the transcendentalist philosophy. He suggested that God could be found in nature and that spending time in nature was the closest man could come to the divine. Another of Emerson’s most famous works was the 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” a defense of individualism, which emphasized nonconformity and personal responsibility.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in keeping with his reverence for individual freedom, became a vocal abolitionist and spoke out against the Fugitive Slave Law—which provided for the return of runaway slaves.
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.