New England Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism took root in New England in the mid-1830s in reaction against the rationalism (emphasis on intellectual understanding) of the Unitarian Church. The philosophy centered around the premise that divine truth is present in all created things and that truth is known through intuition, not through the rational mind. From this core proceeded the belief that all of nature, including all humans, is one with God, whom the transcendentalists sometimes called the Over-Soul. In an essay with that title, Emerson defined God as "that great nature in which we rest . . . that Unity within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other.’’
The term transcendental was borrowed from German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who wrote in his well-known work Critique of Practical Reason, "I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori'' (meaning, independent of sensory experience). American transcendentalism was thus clearly linked to similar philosophies that existed in Europe, and it also shared important ideas with Eastern philosophies and religions, including Hinduism. The New England transcendentalists read the Bhagavadgita (sometimes called the Hindu Bible), the Upanishads (philosophical writings on the Hindu scriptures), and Confucius. In addition, Emerson in...
(The entire section is 754 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
The essay is, above all, a carefully constructed rational argument with the goal of persuading readers to adopt the ideas Emerson promotes. The author uses logic, reasons, facts, and examples to support his position. One example of his use of facts is his reference to two pairs of British explorers to support his argument that advances in technology do not necessarily lead to greater accomplishments. Emerson writes that Henry Hudson and Vitus Behring, who lived in the centuries preceding Emerson's time, achieved great success with equipment much less sophisticated than that used by Sir William Parry and Sir John Franklin, who were famous in Emerson's day. Emerson's contrast here is especially interesting because history bore him out.
While Hudson and Behring's names appear prominently on today's maps to attest to their discoveries, Parry and Franklin are less well-known. In addition, Franklin died six years after the publication of "Self-Reliance" in a failed attempt to find the much sought-after Northwest Passage.
Emerson organizes his ideas so that they lead readers step by step to the conclusion he wishes them to reach. He begins by defining genius. He then explains why he believes that every human being possesses it and goes on to explain how and why this genius is to be expressed—the expression of that inborn genius is the essence of self-reliance.
(The entire section is 899 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Mid-1800s: Transcendentalism, which borrows some elements of Eastern philosophies and religions, takes hold in Massachusetts and influences many American intellectuals and writers.
Today: Yoga is increasingly popular throughout the United States. Yoga, the Sanskrit word for "union," is a philosophy that was first systematized by the Indian sage Patanjali. The various schools of yoga taught today have some things in common with transcendentalism, such as the beliefs that each individual soul is directly linked to God and that truth is everywhere present in creation and can be experienced intuitively, rather than rationally. While millions of Americans practice only one element of yoga—its regimen of physical postures and exercises—a growing number are adopting the broader philosophy and its more mystical practices, such as meditation.
Mid-1800s: As the Industrial Revolution brings more efficient production of goods—which, in turn, makes goods more abundant and more affordable—Emerson cautions that progress and happiness are not to be found through materialism but by living simply and seeking peace within.
Today: An informal ABC News poll finds that nearly one-third of Americans spend more than they earn. This accords with statistics that show that, in 2000 and 2001, the monthly savings rate is often negative, meaning that in some months Americans collectively are spending more than they are...
(The entire section is 327 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Emerson mentions many accomplished men in "Self-Reliance." List five to ten people who have lived since Emerson's time who are examples of high achievement. Do some research, and then for each person write a sentence or two about some way in which that person exhibited self-reliance.
Emerson's central premise is that all individuals have the potential to be great, if only they would trust themselves. Do you agree or disagree? Write a persuasive essay that states and argues for your position. Use examples, as Emerson did.
Emerson was a strong supporter of President Abraham Lincoln. Given what you know about Emerson and Lincoln, why do you think this was so? Write your answer in the form of a list of possible reasons, and compare your answers with those of your classmates.
Emerson was a poet as well as an essayist. Write a poem of at least sixteen lines that expresses the main ideas set forth in "Self-Reliance." Your poem may be in any form and style you choose. Feel free to borrow language and examples from Emerson, to use your own, or to make use of both.
According to Emerson, people owe one another ‘‘mutual reverence.’’ Explain what you think he means by this. Explain whether you agree that mutual reverence is called for and why you agree or disagree.
(The entire section is 220 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
Essays: First and Second Series (1990), edited by Douglas Crase, combines all of the essays that Emerson originally published in two separate volumes in 1841 and 1844.
"The Concord Hymn'' and Other Poems (1996) is a collection of Emerson's most well-known poems.
Walden (1854), by Emerson's friend and student Henry David Thoreau, is the world-famous autobiographical record of Thoreau's time spent living in solitude in the woods near Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts. Walden has become an enduringly popular literary expression of American transcendentalism, individualism, and naturalism.
Little Women (1868) is a classic novel based on the childhood of its author, Louisa May Alcott, the daughter of Emerson's friend and fellow transcendentalist Bronson Alcott. The book tells the story of the March family, following daughters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy from childhood to adulthood. The Marches are transcendentalists who value self-reliance, individualism, compassion, and education above material and social achievement.
Emerson called Leaves of Grass (1855), poetry by Walt Whitman, "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that American has yet produced.’’ It is now considered one of the most important works of poetry in the English language.
(The entire section is 181 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
‘‘Emerson: His Failure to Perceive the Meaning of Evil,’’ in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, edited by W. P. Trent, J. Erskine, S. P. Sherman, and C. Van Doren, Cambridge University Press, 1907-1921.
Gerber, John C., "Emerson, Ralph Waldo,’’ in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3d ed., St. James Press, 1994.
Khoren, Arisian, '"The Sun Shines Today Also': The Vision and Impact of Ralph Waldo Emerson,’’ speech delivered at New York Society for Ethical Culture, June 17, 2001.
Myerson, Joel, ‘‘Ralph Waldo Emerson,’’ in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: 1640-1865, Gale Research, Inc., 1988, pp. 74-93.
Reid, Alfred S., ‘‘Emerson's Prose Style: An Edge to Goodness,’’ in Style in the American Renaissance: A Symposium, edited by Carl F. Strauch, Transcendental Books, 1970, pp. 37–42.
Warren, Joyce W., ‘‘Transcendentalism and the Self: Ralph Waldo Emerson,’’ in The American Narcissus: Individualism and Women in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, Rutgers University Press, 1984, pp. 23-53.
Wilson, Leslie Perrin, ‘‘New England Transcendentalism,’’ in Concord Magazine, November 1998.
Cole, Phyllis, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History, Oxford University...
(The entire section is 364 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981.
Bosco, Ronald A., and Joel Myerson, eds. Emerson in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.
Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.
Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.
Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Robinson, David M....
(The entire section is 199 words.)