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Self and Society in American Transcendentalism

General Assembly 2008 Event 4042

"Who were the Transcendentalists, and how did they attempt to change the world? What did they think was the matter with the United States?" asked Dr. Philip Gura. Gura is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the author of the recent book American Transcendentalism: A History.

Gura, an active Unitarian Universalist, said he found it moving to have the opportunity to deliver a lecture on Transcendentalism at General Assembly. He reminded the Unitarian Universalists in the audience that "we are descended from the Transcendentalists." He added, "In no way do I mean to imply that Unitarian Universalists should wrap themselves in Transcendentalism" to the exclusion of other important religious influences, yet even with that caveat, Transcendentalism remains a major influence even today.

"There was no central creed that identified the Transcendentalists," said Gura. Yet although they were a diverse group, Gura asserted that "we can say a few things about the group." They were mostly New Englanders, and mostly products of Harvard College . Nearly all of them were associated with Unitarianism, and can be understood as liberal Christians. They had a distinct philosophical bent towards German idealism, as opposed to the prevalent Lockeian empiricism that prevailed in the United States in that era.

Gura also pointed out that the name "Transcendentalism" was originally imposed on the group by their detractors. They were more likely to refer to their movement with the term "New Thought." However, by the 1840s, they themselves reluctantly accepted the name "Transcendentalism."

They did have many detractors. The Transcendentalists unsettled many of their contemporaries. Many of their contemporaries weren't sure exactly what Transcendentalism might be. But, as the Rev. Theodore Parker, Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist, wryly noted, whatever it might be, "it must be very naughty."

"Who precisely were they?" Gura asked. A large number of the Transcendentalists were Unitarian clergymen. Some of them remained in traditional Unitarian ministry positions. Others, such as Theodore Parker, redefined the nature of church. Still others left the church altogether, such as the Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who began his career as a Unitarian minister and then left the ministry to become a lecturer and writer.

Gura also noted that many of the Transcendentalists were women. Major figures in the movement included women like educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and writer Margaret Fuller.

Overall, however, they were not a cohesive movement. Instead, they were like-minded people who were all critical of contemporary religious thought and practice, and who found inspiration in contemporary European philosophy. They did generally hold that there is something innately present in each individual which allows the individual to distinguish between right and wrong. They believed that "the highest law comes from the promptings of the spirit," Gura said.

"Simply put, it was another American religious revolution," said Gura. Because each individual had the direct access to the divine, Transcendentalism asserted a democracy of the spirit. This implied that all men and women were created equal, and this led the Transcendentalists to want to apply their ideals to life. The test of a truth for them was its potential to transform the world.

However, the Transcendentalists were divided among themselves about how to apply their ideals to the real world and effect reform. Should they try to reform the self, or should they try to reform society? On the one hand, Emerson and others like him championed self culture, an ethic of individualism that fit in with the market revolution that was going on in the United States at that time. On the other hand, Orestes Brownson and others like him said that the "self was subsumed in common humanity."

Thus, Emerson exemplified a form of Transcendentalist hyper-individualism. He believed that only after an individual experienced the paradise within could that person then go out and try to create a paradise in the wider world. But other Transcendentalists condemned the egotism to which Emerson's ideas led. While some Transcendentalists engaged in various efforts to reform the world, Emerson tended not to support those reform movements with any degree of enthusiasm. He even said that a Transcendentalist "should not labor for small objects such as abolition," according to Gura.

"Other Transcendentalists lamented how such self-regard impeded reform movements," Gura said. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody called Emerson's ideas "egotheism." Peabody felt it was a problem when "people deified their own conceptions."

Other Transcendentalists had a different understanding of self and society. Rather than emphasizing the need to reform the self, as Emerson did, they emphasized the need to reform society. For example, Orestes Brownson was concerned with the status of laborers. But instead of urging laborers towards self-culture, Brownson addressed the relationship between capital and labor, and he was critical of the wage system which brought employers great profit at the expense of the laborers.

In another example, Theodore Parker understood that the problems of the urban poor were cause by the complicity of the comfortable classes, not by some presumed faults in poor persons. Therefore, Parker believed that self-culture would not help the poor.

Other Transcendentalists changed over time, emphasizing self-culture at one time, and social reform at another time. Margaret Fuller, for example, began as one of Emerson's acolytes. But the more Fuller studied the plight of women, the more she realized that it was not a lack of self-culture which held women back; rather it was broad societal forces which held women back. By 1848, Fuller had become a socialist, while Emerson continued to uphold comfortable middle class values.

During the 1850s, this bifurcation in the Transcendentalist movement worsened, as the sectional crisis of that time challenged Transcendentalist unity. After the Civil War, the individualism of Emerson was stripped of its spiritual overtones, and co-opted by the rapaciousness of the Gilded Age. Gura said that Transcendentalism represented the last and best chance in American history to inculcate social responsibility into the national culture—but that didn't happen.

Nevertheless, said Gura, the dream of Transcendentalism is still alive. "Self or society?" he said. "I leave you with this: Is this a rhetorical question?"

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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