To me, the most important belief of the leaders of this movement is that people should act according to their own consciences. They believed that people were all pretty much connected to God on a personal level and that people could, therefore, know what was right on their own. They did not need a society telling them how they should act. Because of this, they believed that people should ignore the rules of society and act on their own beliefs.
A second important belief was that all people were connected to nature. This was a belief that said that people were just a part of the universe like everything else. People were part of nature and nature was part of people.
To me, these are the two most important beliefs of the Transcendentalists.
The two major leaders in the movement of Transcendentalism are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. But there were many other prominent figures, among them Amos Bronson Alcott, Sylvester Judd, Elizabeth Peabody, and Walt Whitman. This new movement in the Romantic tradition that burgeoned in New England held that every individual can reach ultimate truths through spiritual intuitions, which transcends reason and sensory experience. Their basic tenets were
- a belief that God is present in every aspect of Nature, including every human being
- the conviction that everyone is capable of experiencing and learning about God through the use of intuition
- the belief that all of Nature is symbolic of the spirit. (Emerson's concept was of the Over-Soul)
- an optimistic view of the world as good and evil as virtually nonexistent.
Transcendentalism arose as a protest against the general state of culture and society, particularly the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the Unitarian doctrines taught at Harvard Divinity School. In his optimisim, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former Unitarian minister, wrote particularly of the importance of Nature,
In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. nature says--he is my creature, and maugre (despite) all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me....In the woods too, a man casts off his years,...is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth.
In the presence of nature, Waldo contended, man loses his egotism, becoming more in tune with his better self, in harmony with eternal things:
I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Univeral Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
Henry David Thoreau, who also loved nature, stressed the exercise of one's individuality. Man must walk "deliberately" into the woods to learn what it offers and return just as "deliberately" and "walk to the beat of a different drummer." Thoreau expressed this individual thought many times in his life. Once, he went to jail rather than pay a tax that supported slavery. His passive resistance was inspirational to such leaders as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The previous post gave some great insight into the movement. I would say that two primary leaders that helped to really drive the movement into the consciousness of American thought would have to be Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson helped to initiate much of the philosophy with a belief in the general goodness of human beings, and that this can be best expressed with a strong commitment to injecting human emotions into daily life. Emerson believed that human beings had greatness and spirituality within them, regardless of religious denominations. The depth of the human spirit and its capacity for greatness helped to bring about much of the Transcendentalist movement. In another dimension, Thoreau was interested in bringing this philosophy into social and political action. His primary contributions were to see to it that Transcendentalism was not something limited to philosophical treatises or musings, but rather direct action where individuals were able to exercise the tenets of the movement in their relationship to social and political orders. Thoreau's belief that individuals might have to separate themselves from the social order in order to be in touch with their real identity. At the same time, Thoreau used his beliefs in Transcendentalism to launch political action in opposition to governmental policy, doing so in accordance to his own beliefs and values. This was radical at the time and a great embodiment of the Transcendental philosophy at work.