Explain how transcendentalism emerged in the early nineteenth century.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Transcendentalism emerged as a literary, philosophical, and intellectual movement in the Romantic tradition. It arose in reaction to the intellectualism and spirituality of its age.

The Transcendental movement began in Concord, Massachusetts, the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the leading exponents of this philosophy. The basic tenets of Transcendentalism are as follows:

  1. A belief that God is omnipresent. He is present in every aspect of Nature, as well as in every human being.
  2. The belief that every human being can apprehend God through the use of intuition.
  3. The belief that everything in Nature is reflective of the divine spirit.

Transcendentalism was formed in part from the philosophy of Greek idealism and partly from Puritanism and its notion of high purpose. Idealists contend that reality lies in rational ideas, rather than senses. Idealists also believe in human perfectibility. Transcendentalists view nature as a doorway to a mystical world holding important truths.

Transcendentalism emerged from the Romanticism of the nineteenth century which valued feeling and intuition over reason. Just as Romanticism placed faith in the inner experiences of a person and the power of the imagination, Transcendentalism put much faith in intuition and the spiritual experiences that a person has in the presence of Nature. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that when he was in the presence of Nature, 

Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.