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The ’Splainer: What is Transcendentalism?

(RNS) The author of 'Walden; or, Life in the Woods,' who was born 200 years ago this week, was a Transcendentalist. Let us 'Splain . . .

Walden Pond, near Concord, Mass., in 2010, which is discussed extensively by Henry David Thoreau in the chapter “The Ponds.” Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

Henry David Thoreau. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Happy 200th birthday, Henry David Thoreau! You don’t look a day over 199.

The famous essayist and philosopher is being remembered Wednesday (July 12) with walks around Walden Pond, where the young Thoreau, who was born in Concord, Mass., built a nearby cabin and lived for two years, two months and two days. While there he wrote “Walden; or, Life in the Woods,” considered an American classic and one of the founding documents of environmentalism.

But the famous Concordian was also a luminary of Transcendentalism, an American-born ideology that had enormous influence on literature and religion. Yet will anyone honor him by attending a Transcendentalist church? What is Transcendentalism and where did it come from? And, on the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, where has it gone? Let us ’Splain …

What is Transcendentalism?

Transcendentalism is more a philosophy than a religion. It blossomed out of Unitarianism, which by the early 1800s had come to America from England and been embraced at Harvard University. Unitarians hold that God is not trinitarian (as in Father, Son and Holy Ghost) but “unitarian” — a singular, supreme being.

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Transcendentalism became its own thing when four Boston Unitarians, including the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, founded the Transcendental Club in 1836. Thoreau, an Emerson protégé, was one of the first members, along with the utopian Bronson Alcott, feminist Margaret Fuller and education pioneer Elizabeth Peabody.

American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1857. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

No traditional God was fit for the Transcendentalists. Instead, they looked to connect to an “Over-Soul,” a sort of universal force of goodness that both resides in all people and “transcends” them.

“We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds,” Emerson wrote of his fellow Transcendentalists. “A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”

Transcendentalists derided society — especially organized religion and political parties — as corrupting, and upheld nature, free will, self-reliance and reason as enlightening.

Where have I heard that before?

The title page from first edition of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” (1854). Image courtesy of Creative Commons

In Eastern religions, like Hinduism. Transcendentalists were influenced by Hindu sacred texts. Thoreau writes in “Walden” of reading the Bhagavad Gita: “I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma, and Vishnu and Indra … our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”

Another influence was David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher and atheist who embraced skepticism and personal reason.


What happened to the first Transcendentalists?

They gave way to a second wave of Transcendentalists by the mid-1850s — just as Thoreau was traveling to Canada and Cape Cod and writing about them — that included several still-famous names, like poet Walt Whitman and writer Louisa May Alcott. But the Civil War (and links between individual Transcendentalists and the insurrectionist John Brown) sped its demise — it was hard to expound upon an Over-Soul when brothers were killing brothers.

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Is there a contemporary Transcendentalism?

The most direct descendants of the Transcendentalists are the Unitarian Universalists. They were greatly influenced by Emerson’s writings, and modern Unitarianism is more distant from the supernatural than it was in his time. Once an outcast among Unitarians for his radical thoughts, he is now considered something of a Unitarian saint.

Transcendentalist thinking also influenced many founders of  “New Thought” philosophies and faiths — Religious Science, Unity Church and Divine Science. While they depart from Transcendentalism in their beliefs about personal health (some of these groups believe “right thinking” can cure illness), their idea of God as an “infinite intelligence” can be traced to the Transcendentalist Over-Soul.

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What happened to Thoreau after Walden Pond?

Though he continued to explore nature and write, “Walden” sold only about 2,000 copies in his lifetime. He died of tuberculosis at age 44 in 1862. When he was on his deathbed, an aunt asked him if he had made peace with God. Thoreau is said to have replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

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