What are the basic elements of Transcendentalism?
The concept of Transcendentalism defies easy description or definition. Even among the major figures of the movement in its day (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, etc.) and in books written about the movement since that time, concrete explanations are difficult to come by. However, basically, we can say that Transcendentalism begins and ends with The Individual. The movement offered a new and idealistic approach for people to consider themselves as individuals, as part of society, and as part of the natural world.
Here, all power is held by the individual, who can rely on his/her own experiences and thoughts as true guidance. Instead of always heeding government-initiated laws, individuals should follow their own inner “higher law” of morality, the guidelines that already lie inside their minds, hearts, and souls. Instead of mindlessly practicing organized religion, and listening to the word of God as interpreted by a middle-man speaking from a pulpit, individuals should go out into nature in order to seek and find God themselves, as well as to learn and confirm their own relationships with the wider natural universe. Instead of just going along with the lifestyles of mainstream society, individuals should find better ways of living in communities and among the rest of humanity. This means participating in social reforms, like women’s rights and the antislavery movement. Some folks even went so far as to establish their own unique and utopian communities, where everyone (in theory) worked for the greater good of the whole group. A Transcendentalist would tell you to go out into nature and to think for yourself. Don’t just go along with the crowd because it’s the easy and “normal” path to take. Stop and think. What do you really believe, independently and away from everyone else? This, then, is your own higher law. Act as you see fit.
Transcendentalism shares aspects with the Romanticism of Wordsworth, Keats, and others. The American Transcendentalist Movement was philosophical, literary, spiritual, and psychological (and/or sociological). The Transcendentalists tended to be liberal: in support of women's rights and in favor of the abolition of slavery. Given that social institutions continued to oppress such groups, the Transcendentalists began to question the use of social institutions and instead they focused on the will and mental activity of the individual. Also, like the Romantics, the Transcendentalists found more spiritual and natural connection with nature (as opposed to social institutions). Therefore, the typical transcendentalist would try to find his/her own individual voice in nature. This led the movement to encourage solitude in nature, skepticism of institutions which supported oppression, and self-reliance. Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" is considered a main doctrine of the Transcendental Movement.
These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.