Transcendentalism: definition, key figures and aspects

Transcendentalism was a philosophical and literary movement that emerged in the mid-19th century in the United States. It was rooted in the belief that individuals could transcend the limitations of their senses and experience a higher, spiritual reality through intuition, imagination, and a deep connection with nature. Transcendentalists rejected traditional religious and societal norms, emphasizing the inherent goodness of humanity and the importance of self-reliance and individuality.

Key Figures:

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Emerson was a leading figure in the transcendentalist movement. His essay “Nature” and the collection of essays titled “Essays: First Series” laid out the fundamental principles of transcendentalism. He emphasized the importance of individual thought and self-reliance, encouraging people to trust their intuition and experience natural divinity.
  2. Henry David Thoreau: Thoreau, a close associate of Emerson, is best known for his book “Walden,” which describes his two-year experience living a simple life in a cabin in the woods. Thoreau advocated for nonconformity, civil disobedience, and the pursuit of a life in harmony with nature. His writings inspired future generations of environmentalists and social activists.

Key Concepts:

  1. Oversoul: Transcendentalists believed in the concept of the Oversoul, an all-encompassing spiritual entity that connects all individuals and aspects of nature. They believed that by tapping into the Oversoul, individuals could access higher truths and achieve a deeper understanding of themselves and the world.
  2. Intuition: Transcendentalists emphasized the importance of intuition, considering it a direct connection to divine truth. They believed in inner intuition, by which individuals could bypass traditional knowledge and access profound insights.
  3. Nature: Transcendentalists viewed nature as a source of spiritual inspiration and guidance. They saw the natural world as a manifestation of the divine and believed that spending time in nature could lead to spiritual awakening and a deeper understanding of oneself.
  4. Individualism: Transcendentalists championed individualism and the rejection of societal conformity. They encouraged people to think independently, trust their judgment, and resist societal pressures that stifled personal growth and expression.

Transcendentalism’s emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, and the importance of nature influenced writers such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Transcendentalist ideas also resonated with the civil rights movement, feminist movements, and environmentalism in later years, as they promoted ideas of equality, personal freedom, and ecological awareness.

Also read; Coleridge’s theory of primary and secondary imagination