Transcendental Ethos

A Study of Thoreauís Social Philosophy and
Its Consistency in Relation to Antebellum Reform

© Michael J. Frederick, 1998

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Table of Contents - Next Section


III. Transcendental Ethos

[1]        Wendell Glick writes: "Transcendentalism and radical Abolitionism were in so many respects twin movements, based upon the same presuppositions and having the same altruistic aims, that it is difficult to avoid making the generalization that a consistent radical Abolitionist was, in the broad interpretation of the term, a Transcendentalist."(37) By classifying Garrison and Thoreau together, Glick is led to believe that each of them was philosophically alike in defining their conception of the Moral Law. He writes: "There was simply no way to reconcile the methods of Brown with their faith in the irresistibility of the Moral Law the keystone of their early philosophy."(38) His general argument, however, avoids some important particulars that divided the two movements.

[2]        New England Transcendentalism was yet another reform-oriented movement. Unlike other reform movements of the time, Transcendentalism is not easily defined, and by itself represents a significant challenge to properly understanding Thoreau. The movement was interested in all areas of reform as Abolitionism was also concerned with temperance, education, and slavery. Loosely defined, it was as much a philosophy as it was a religion. Some Transcendentalists, like Bronson Alcott, who derived surprising answers from his young students on the nature of Christ using the Socratic method, appealed to the Gospels more than others, but without subscribing wholly to scriptural authority. One thing is certain; Transcendentalism was never an Evangelical movement.

[3]        To understand Transcendentalism, it is necessary to understand that it was an offshoot of New England Unitarianism, which in turn, was a reaction against Calvinism and distinct from Evangelical Protestantism. The majority of Transcendentalists were Unitarians or those, like Emerson and Thoreau, who were dissatisfied with the Church and officially left organized religion. It may also be of some interest to note, as Harold Clarke Goddard did in his book on Transcendentalism, that New England Unitarianism differed from the English Unitarianism of Priestley in that "it exhibited practically none of his materialistic and Socinian tendencies."(39)

[4]        Unitarians rejected Calvinism on moral and speculative grounds. They objected to the idea of determinism because without some concept of free will it is difficult to hold individuals accountable or responsible, morally, for their actions. In rejecting the Trinitarian character of Godís nature, they stressed a peculiar religious doctrine that went against the current of evangelical thought, believing, instead, in the oneness or Unitarian character of His nature. This was an important speculative idea for Transcendentalism as well because Emerson predicated his notion of the "Oversoul"on a similar assumption.

[5]        Within the Unitarian clergy, some argued that Religious dogma, the Old and New Testaments, and Jesus were not infallible. For example, in his "Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity," Theodore Parker writes: "If Christianity were true, we should still think it was so, not because its record was written by infallible pens, nor because it was lived out by an infallible teacher. . . . If it rest on the personal authority of Jesus alone, then there is no certainty of its truth."(40) Parker was a Transcendentalist and a practicing Unitarian minister. Although his view is representative of the most liberal branch of Unitarianism and its clergy at that time, his remark, here, illustrates just how far a Unitarian could go in rejecting scriptural authority. Unitarianism was generally less inclined to fundamentalism than Evangelical Protestantism, and Transcendentalism, further still.

[6]        Emerson agreed with Parkerís view and described like no one before him an interpretation of Christ that took by storm the religious community of Boston. He likened Jesus Christ to a true prophet who "saw with open eye the mystery of the soul." Audiences were stunned to hear Emerson say that Christ "saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World."(41) Christ recognized the divinity incarnate in all persons. "The stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man; ó indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology."(42) This should not be confused with pantheism. The individual has a divine nature, according to Emerson, but is not the divinity itself.

[7]        Questioning scriptural authority was important for Transcendentalism because on either side of the slavery controversy proponents of slavery or abolitionism could refer to scripture as the ultimate authority for defending their cause. Since the Reformation, Protestantism has generally encouraged individual interpretation of the Bible. Transcendentalism did not necessarily make a radical break with tradition. After all, most of the founding fathers were deists in rejecting Biblical authority over natural laws. Transcendentalists were well aware of the implications of the new science and wanted to reaffirm revelation against uncertainty but also outside the traditional religious understanding. Philosophically, they were interested in confronting the extreme skepticism of Hume against the existence of the mind, and the sensualism of Locke, and the current wisdom of Scottish realism. They wanted to establish the existence of inherent knowledge and the validity of, what can be termed, their conscience theory.

[8]        Certain Unitarian ministers helped pave the way. William Ellery Channing, the Federal Street Church minister from 1803 until 1842, whose "icy system" it was that displeased young Garrison, is an important transitional figure. He was the chief spokesperson for Unitarianism during his time and a forerunner of Transcendentalism. Channing, in his later years, was present at the earliest of the informal gatherings of the Transcendentalists. The "Hedge Club," as the group came to be known, typically met when Fredric Henry Hedge, a Bangor minister, came to town. Hedge said Channing "could from the spiritual height on which he stood, by mere dint of gravity, send his word into the soul with more searching force than all the orators of the time."(43) Emerson called him "our bishop" and continually stressed his importance to Transcendentalism. It should be emphasized that, while Channing was progressive among Unitarians, he was not, however, a Transcendentalist.

[9]        Channing went against the logic of most Unitarian and evangelical ministers by questioning the philosophy of John Locke. His ideas ripened the future appeal of German Idealism and French Eclecticism for Transcendentalism. In Human Understanding, Locke had argued that the mind is tabula rasa, a blank slate, until sense experience records its events. Most followers of Locke believe that our knowledge is derived solely from our observation of the material world. Channing, on the other hand, argues that knowledge is derived from "our own soul," that "the divine attributes are first developed in ourselves, and thence transferred to our Creator." He is close to suggesting that all persons have a "spark of divinity." But he also adds "an important caution" against "extravagance" cautioning his listeners to reverence human nature and not to do it violence. He writes: "Our proper work is to approach God by the free and natural unfolding of our highest powers ó of understanding, conscience, love, and the moral will."(44)

[10]         During the Antebellum period, the Scottish Common Sense philosophy of Dugald Stewart and Sampson Reid was taught at most universities, including Thoreauís Harvard, as the prevailing model. Edward H. Madden, an historian of civil disobedience, explains that while Kantian idealism and French Eclecticism gained some favor during the 1840's and 1850's the prevailing wisdom of the time was Scottish realism.(45) Few academics outside the fold of Transcendentalism embraced Kantian Idealism. While reformers and Transcendentalists alike subscribed to some concept of Moral or Higher Law of conscience, the Transcendentalists, and particularly Thoreau, supported their view according to the dictates of transcendental reason.

[11]        Scottish realism was an attempt to defend Locke against the scepticism of Hume. Stewart, in Dissertation: Progress of Metaphysical, Ethical, and Political Philosophy, argued that Lockeís theory on the role of the senses was misunderstood by Gassendi, Condillac, and Diderot, all of whom were followers of Locke who adopted and simplified his method. Stewart shows that Locke accepted the validity that knowledge arises from both the senses and reflection, and quotes his position on the latter:

The other function, from which experience furnishes the understanding with ideas, is the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got: which operations, when the soul comes to reflect on and consider, do furnish the understanding with another set of ideas, which could not be had from things without.(46)
Stewart brought Lockeís philosophy back on his own terms. Emerson was impressed by his emphasis on individual consciousness, the power of memory, and his belief that nature exists independent from the mind and consists of eternal laws.

[12]       Stewartís system on the whole, however, did not offer a tenable solution to Humeís skepticism in the view of most Transcendentalists. It affirmed consciousness and a sense of universal morality but lacked a satisfying concept of free will. In favoring Locke, it dismissed Kant and diminished the importance of Eastern, especially Hindu, thought, and pure idealism. More importantly in their view, Stewartís system offered no moral basis to dispute the existence of the institution of slavery.

[13]        Channingís view that knowledge is derived from "our own soul" represents an important bridge for Transcendentalism to Immanuel Kantís theory of subjective reasoning. Kantís Critique of Pure Reason and his later Critique of Practical Reason were viewed by rationalists as important works because they confronted the sensualism of Locke and the skepticism of Hume.

[14]        Kant had asserted that transcendental knowledge is known a priori. A proposition is known a priori if it is known independent of experience. Most followers of Kant would say that mathematics is known in this way. For example, it is not necessary to know that 2 + 2 = 4 through observation. Such propositions are known inherently without the aid of observation. Moreover, this had a certain significance for the Transcendentalists. A priori knowledge is the same in every individual, and yet it is also independent of every individual. It exists of its own accord. Kantís theory supported the use of reason-based intuitionism and helped to verify the use and validity of inherent concepts in practical ethics for the Transcendentalists.

[15]        They received the philosophy of Kant second-hand through the Englishman Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Emerson in his essay on Transcendentalism admits that the Idealism of his time "acquired the name Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant," but failed to mention in it the profound importance of Coleridge to the movement.(47) Elsewhere, however, Emerson refers to Coleridge as one of the few who "cannot be matched in America."(48) The reason for Emersonís high estimation of him is because Coleridge made the distinction between the faculties of Reason and Understanding for Transcendentalism in his Aids to Reflection, published by 1826 in America.

[16]        Coleridge defends idealism against the skepticism of a Hume and upholds the use of Reason or intuitive knowledge over that which is based on observation or reflection alone. When Jonathan Edwards was rethinking Calvinism, he determined the Will was passive. His conclusion is not surprising when it is remembered that he was working under the influence of Locke who had concluded the mind is passive, a blank slate. Coleridge argues something quite different. He believes the mind has the active powers of Reason and Understanding. He writes: "Now as the difference of a captive and enslaved Will, and no will at all, such is the difference between the Lutheranism of Calvin and the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards."(49) As Coleridge offered a satisfying concept of free will, the Transcendentalists found a viable philosophy to dispute morally the institution of slavery.

[17]        Coleridge believes the "knowledge of spiritual Truth is of necessity immediate and intuitive: and the World or Natural Man possesses no higher intuitions than those of the pure Senses, which are the subjects of MathematicalScience."(50) For him, the difference between the Understanding and the Reason is that the first is discursive while the latter is fixed. The Understanding is the faculty of reflection while the Reason exists of its own accord and is known a priori. Mathematical equations and spiritual truth, as he terms it, are known through the faculty of the Reason. But the Understanding must refer to "some other Faculty as its ultimate authority."(51) By the phrase, some other faculty, he means the various faculties of the senses such as sight, touch, taste, smell, or hearing. For example, the Understanding can reflect on a subject categorically by looking at the qualities of an object, and ask, is it red, blue, or green or some combination of shades? It can ask what relation the object has to time and place. Or it can ask if the object is acting or affected. The Understanding cannot, however, know an object outside of its attributes. Coleridgeís approach is ratiocinative and Aristotelian in its method. In this sense, Reason is distinguished from the lowercase reason of the Enlightenment, which referred to a process of intellection rather than to inherent concepts. Together, the Reason and the Understanding form an intuitive and an intellective process.

[18]        Thoreau read most of Coleridgeís works including Aids to Reflection.(52) This was one of many books belonging to the self-education or self-cultivation genre stemming from the German concept of Bildung that had gained many adherents in New England during the 1830's and 1840's, especially among the Transcendentalists. Thoreau was undoubtably impressed by any book that belonged to this genre. He also seems to have readily accepted Coleridgeís epistemology when he wrote: "The most distinct and beautiful statement of any truth must take at last the mathematical form."(53) In relation to a single virtue, the scales of justice can serve as an emblematic illustration of his ideal.

[19]        Thoreau may have been an idealist, but his nature study reveals that he was methodical and careful to base knowledge of a "spiritual truth" on the observation of the actual world. Robert Richardson, in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, wrote of Thoreauís nature work: "It is a huge undertaking, a major effort, the general purpose of which seems to have been the distillation of ten yearsí observations into an archetypal year, not impressionistic, but statistically averaged, combining the accuracy of a Darwin with the descriptive flair of a Pliny and the eye of a Ruskin."(54)

[20]        Self-cultivation is perhaps the single most important idea governing Transcendentalism, and the concept is especially evident in Thoreauís social philosophy. While some Transcendentalists, such as Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and George Ripley, believed in collective reform toward individual self-improvement, others, such as Thoreau and Emerson, stressed the importance of individual reform. Alcott started his ill-fated Fruitlands experiment in communal living and was a member of Garrisonís Abolitionist society. Parker remained an influential Unitarian minister. Ripley founded the Brook Farm community in Roxbury, Massachusetts. When asked to join Brook Farm, Emerson declined. In his journal, he wrote: "To join this body would be to traverse all my long trumpeted theory, and the instinct which spoke from it, that one man is a counterpoise to a city, ó that a man is stronger than a city, that his solitude is more prevalent & beneficent than the concert of crowds."(55) Thoreau simply replied: "As for these communities ó I think I had rather keep a bachelorís hall in hell than go to board in heaven."(56)

[21]        For Thoreau, the implications of individual reform were clear. On January 6, 1841, he wrote a letter to Concordís First Parish declaring himself to be non-member of the Church. His journal for that year specifically approaches the question of religion: "The religion I love is very laic. The clergy are as diseased, and as much possessed with a devil as the reformers ó They make their topic as offensive as the politician ó for our religion is as unpublic and incommunicable as our poetical vein ó and to be approached with as much love and tenderness." For Thoreau, religion was a private affair and intimately connected to his reform ideal. "True reform can be undertaken any morning before unbarring our doors. It calls no convention. I can do two thirds the reform of the world myself. . . . When an individual takes a sincere step, then all the gods attend, and his single deed is sweet."(57)

[22]        Thoreauís lectures, essays, and books, it is well to remember, are always personal accounts. He begins Walden by noting: "I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well." But he also addresses the larger significance of what he is trying to establish: "If I seem to boast more than is becoming, my excuse is that I brag for humanity rather than for myself, and my shortcomings and inconsistencies do not affect the truth of my statement."(58) His lectures followed from his excursions to Cape Cod, Canada, the Maine Woods, Walden Pond, and general sauntering in and about Concord. Thoreau usually presented a topic publically in lecture format before it appeared in print. While he may seem to distance himself from society by advocating individual rather than collective reform, he keeps society close at hand in his overall view.

[23]        "Economy," the first chapter of Walden, is a long digression on the state of society, if not civilization, as Thoreau saw it. He finds most of his neighbors are occupied with material pursuits. This is why, in his estimation, most people live lives of "quiet desperation." Thoreau argues the individual should pursue spiritual ends as well. He writes:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.(59)
He is quick to announce that he knows this much through experimentation. Thoreau is able to objectify an abstract concept such as the life worth living through his experiment in living while at Walden Pond. Walden can, of course, also be read as part of the self-culture genre; its thesis reads: Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!

[24]        The self-cultivation ethic stemmed from Puritanism and influenced both Unitarianism and Evangelical Protestantism. For Transcendentalism, self-culture took on an even more important role because, as Parker asserted, there is no certainty of truth if it is based on scriptural authority alone. Thoreauís Walden, Emersonís "Self-Reliance," Alcottís "Conversations with Children," and Elizabeth Peabodyís aesthetic principle all deal with self-cultivation. Although progressive for the time, these works do not necessarily indicate a radical break from Unitarianism.

[25]        Channing echoes Transcendentalism in his essay on "Self-Culture." In a Thoreauvian vein, he writes: "A man who rises above himself looks from an eminence on nature and providence, on society and life. . . . Duty, faithfully performed, opens the mind to truth, both being of one family, alike immutable, universal, and everlasting." And in a Transcendental vein, he goes on to say: "In a word, one man sees all things apart and in fragments, whilst another strives to discover the harmony, connection, unity of all. . . . In looking at our nature, we discover, among its admirable endowments, the sense or perception of beauty."(60)

[26]        The Transcendentalists believed that self-education through meditation, contemplation, reflection, and observation cultivates the higher perceptive powers of the mind and can lead to a greater consciousness of ultimate reality. Their rejection of Lockean wisdom was essential on this point. Transcendentalists argue that nature is a reflection of inherent ideas, and that the individual has some idea of truth, justice, goodness, beauty, love, or mathematics without the aid of observation. For them, we could say, the mind is not analogous to a computerís hard drive where observations of empirical data is simply stored and processed. Rather, there is an intimate connection, unity, between subject and object, between the knower and the thing known, each emanating from a single source and reflecting the ideal. Emerson calls it the Oversoul. Thoreau uses the expression "sympathy with intelligence."

[27]        Sherman Paul, in Shores of America, wrote of the Transcendentalist belief in "intuitive apprehension":

Not only did its synthesizing powers account for the way in which experience becomes meaningful, but being an imaginative faculty as well, it could directly seize reality. And this apprehension of reality, though mystical in the epistemological sense of making the knower one with the thing known, was not the vaporous emotional state usually ascribed to mysticism; it was a cognitive experience, the liberating power of which came from possessing Ideas ó not the mere Lockean representative idea, but the Idea in the mind of God, the Idea in the Platonic sense of being the correlative of Reality itself.(61)
Most Transcendentalists claim to have had intuitive apprehensions or mystical experiences. Alcott has been described as the movementís mystic.(62) Emerson speaks of the "transparent eyeball." Margaret Fuller claims to have been overwhelmed by a sudden bodily infusion of light. Elizabeth Peabody walked into a tree on Boston Common while having a similar experience. Thoreau records a childhood experience in an 1851 journal entry:
There comes into my mind or soul an indescribable infinite all absorbing divine heavenly pleasure, a sense of elevation & expansion ó and have had nought to do with it. I perceive that I am dealt with by superior powers. This is a pleasure, a joy, an existence which I have not procured myself ó I speak as a witness on the stand and tell what I have perceived. The morning and the evening were sweet to me, and I lead a life aloof from society of men. I wondered if a mortal had ever known what I knew. I looked in books for some recognition of a kindred experience ó but strange to say, I found none. Indeed I was slow to discover that other men had had this experience ó for it had been possible to read books & to associate with men on other grounds.(63)
[28]        While these experiences do not satisfy our understanding objectively in purely scientific terms, they were unequivocally an important aspect of Transcendentalism that has received little attention from scholars. Yet, subjective vision is as much a part of human existence as is our objective perception of the phenomenal world. Consciousness is proportionate to the balance of the two elements. Experiences similar to those of the Transcendentalists have been recorded for centuries in the works of mystics from several cultures. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were interested in them as well and referred to Emanuel Swedenborg, whose work was much admired by the Transcendentalists. Emerson included him in "Representative Men." Kant also mentions him whom he calls "very sublime."(64)

[29]        Intuitive apprehensions gave religious certainty, not of truth per se, but of existence. The Transcendentalists were optimistic about human nature and feared little the possibility of philosophical anarchism or nihilism. They saw unity in variety. Everything was part or parcel of the higher good, the Godhead, "the Oversoul," or "Universal Intelligence." They were realistic, however, recognizing the possibility of human error. Thoreau wrote: "Tell me of the height of the mountains of the moon, or of the diameter of space, and I may believe you, but of the secret history of the Almighty, and I shall pronounce thee mad."(65) For Transcendentalism, religious certainty was not only intuitively but also philosophically and historically based on the literature of the past and confirmed further through daily experience in nature and society. Emerson specifically illustrates this point in the "The American Scholar," telling his audience to enrich themselves in nature, the literature past, and to affect the progress of society. His emphasis is on self-culture and the American destiny. He writes: "A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men."(66)

[30]        Where evangelicals referred to scripture, the Transcendentalists actively turned to nature wishing to break with the shackles of the past and to assert new direction. They saw God everywhere manifest in nature, the epiphany of moral perfection and truth. In his "Nature" address, Emerson proclaims nature is a symbol of ultimate reality. "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God." The ultimate reality underlying nature is symbolically illustrated by the qualities of nature. He explains how this symbolism is manifest in all language. "Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrow." Elsewhere, he writes: "We make fables to hide the baldness of the fact and conform it, as we say, to the higher law of the mind." For Emerson, nature conforms to the "premonitions of Reason and reflect the conscience."(67)

[31]        Thoreau sees a similar relationship between nature and language as well. His analogies are not without their ethical implications:

This termination cious adds force to a word like the lips of browsing creatures which greedily collect what the jaw holds- -as in the word tenacious the first half represents the jaw which holds the last the lips which collect ó It can only be pronounced by a certain opening & protruding of the lips so avaricious ó These words express the sense of their simple roots with the addition as it were of a certain lip greediness. hence capacious & capacity ó emacity When these expressive words are used the hearer gets something to chew upon.[sic] To be a seller with the tenacity & firmness & of the jaws which hold & the greediness of the lips which collect. The audacious man not only dares ó but he greedily collects more danger to dare. The avaricious man not only desires & satisfies his desire ó but he collects ever new browse in anticipation of his ever springing desires ó what is luscious is especially tasted by the lips.
        The mastiff mouthed are tenacious. To be a seller with mastiff ó mouthed tenacity of purpose ó with moose-lipped greediness ó To be edacious & voracius is to be not nibbling & swallowing merely ó but eating & swallowing while the lips are greedily collecting more food.[sic] (68)
[32]        In Walden, Thoreau writes: "I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and  daylight."(69) Nature was the reality that he craved. The hound, bay horse, and turtle dove that he tracks represent the esoteric qualities in nature. Walden Pond is a place of magic, mystery, and wonder. Thoreau through his use of rich symbolism, wit, and metaphor invites his readers to see the world through the writerís eyes. His poetic prose abounds in archetypal symbolism. Ponds represent the inner-depth of a man or a woman depending on oneís perspective. Mountains represent aspirations or the sublime; rivers, stream of consciousness or time; the seasons, rebirth and renewal; and a seedling, the wonders of creation. Pickerels, loons, moles, woodchucks, ants, minks, and muskrats all take on qualities mythic in proportion. Nature is the home of Pan, the forest god, who ranks high in Thoreauís pantheon. A place of wild men "who instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen, and by their goings and comings stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped."

[33]        Thoreau compares himself with chanticleer bragging on his roost if only to wake up his neighbors, and writes: "Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep."(70) He wants his readers to be conscious of the reality manifest in nature. He asks: "May we not see God? . . . Is not nature, rightly read, that of which she is commonly taken to be the symbol merely?" At the summit of Mount Ktaadn, rising high above the secluded woods of Maine, Thoreau exclaimed: "What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! ó Think of our life in nature, ó daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, ó rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?"(71) Thoreauís experience of the sublime at the summit of Mt. Ktaadn indicates with sufficient force his belief in the awesome presents of an ineffable something, God, in nature. Perfection is not ultimate; existing in moments of becoming, it is derived accordingly from consciousness.

[34]        The belief that nature is symbolic of higher spiritual laws ó that it reflects the inner-consciousness of an individual and their conscience ó was not confined solely to Transcendentalism. Channing expresses similar views in his work, writing: "Scriptures continually borrow from nature and social life illustrations and emblems of spiritual truth."(72)) Unitarians everywhere tended to exalt human nature over sinfulness and many stressed conscience as an ethical imperative. In so doing, however, they also cautioned against excess. Andrews Norton, Dexter Professor of Biblical Literature at Harvard, was incensed by Emersonís "Divinity" address and with the light-handedness in which Transcendentalism generally viewed the Gospels. Channing was more favorably inclined to the Transcendentalists and their view of nature than his conservative counterparts, but most would not have disagreed with him when he wrote: "I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society, which does not cower to human opinion, which feels itself accountable to a higher tribunal than manís, which respects a higher law than fashion, which respects itself too much to be the slave or tool of the many or the few."(73) Unitarian ministers such as Levi Fresbie, Henry Ware, and James Walker continually stressed the importance of conscience.(74)

[35]        The Transcendentalists seem to have accepted a Kantian imperative to judge the acceptability of moral action. The logic dictates that men and women should will for themselves only those principles that can be willed for all humanity. In 1843, Thoreau wrote of instances in which the "individual genius" consents "with the universal" that is found in "the scripture of all nations," and that "all expression of truth does at length take this deep ethical form."(75) He sees a correspondence between the inner-most feelings of an individual to the universal laws of scripture as indicating a profound empathy of the human race or, in Jungian terms, a correlation between the collective unconscious and its archetypal symbols. The Transcendentalists did not reject tradition altogether on this account. In fact, history functioned as a corrective measure of their conscience theory. Because they accepted the fixity of natural laws, that transcendental reason, "spiritual truths" and "mathematic formulas," is the same in every individual at all times, they looked to history to find the correlation between the ideas of the past and present, and their universality. This explains not only Thoreauís fascination with the scripture of several nations but with myth as well.

[36]        Thoreauís A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers has recently been recognized as a significant contribution to the so-called "new views" controversy that arose within the Unitarian clergy when Transcendentalism began to voice its dissatisfaction with the old theology.(76) Thoreau rejects historical Christianity and Church dogma but not the universality or the applicability of scripture to moral concerns. He writes:

All nations love the same jests and tales, Jews, Christians, and Mahometans, and the same translated suffice for all. All men are children, and of one family.

The hidden significance of these fables which is sometimes thought to have been detected, the ethics running parallel to the poetry and history, are not so remarkable as the readiness with which they may be made to express a variety of truths. . . . In the mythus a super human intelligence uses the unconscious thoughts and dreams of men as its hieroglyphics to address men unborn.

All the events which make the annals of the nations are but the shadows of our private experiences. Suddenly and silently the eras which we call history awake and glimmer in us, and there is room for Alexander and Hannibal to march and conquer.(77)

History functions as a standard or as a reference point for Transcendentalism. This is why Emerson wrote his "Representative Men," and why Thoreau searched the annals of history for figures representative of his heroic ideal. Emerson referred to Plato, Shakespeare, and Napoleon while Thoreau made reference to Aristotle, Chaucer, and the heroic qualities of Cromwell and Raleigh.

[37]         The book that produced the greatest stir among Unitarians, especially those who later made the transition to Transcendentalism, was Victor Cousinís An Introduction to the Philosophy of History available by 1832 in America. Cousin argues all history can be combined into a single system known as eclecticism. He gives an outline of the history of philosophy and its general effect by describing his idea of the Useful, the Just, the Beautiful, the Godhead, and the Reflection. The first relates to the physical sciences and political economy; the second to civil society and jurisprudence; the third to art; the fourth to religion; and the fifth to necessity. Humanity has debated these five ideas throughout history using philosophy. Hence, he concludes: "Philosophy is the source of all light."(78)

[38]        Cousin believes history follows a pattern according to four prehistoric archetypal ideas: sensationism, idealism, skepticism, and mysticism.(79) Philosophy began in the East ó in India, China, and Persia ó as an abstract philosophy and continued to develop as its influence spread westward. His position is not Eurocentric, however. He writes: "History has no golden age."(80) While he admits philosophy became more concentrated and concrete as it underwent further development in the West, the earlier mythos of the East was retained. He finds truth, equally, in all philosophy at all times. "Philosophy in the East," he writes, "was, generally speaking, the reflected light of religion."(81)

[39]        Emerson and Thoreau were both particularly moved by the story of Krishnaís council to Arjuna, the reluctant warrior of the Bhagavad-Gita. Cousin recounts the episode as one of sublime mystery. The warrior is told that he must "fight the battle," otherwise he would fall into disgrace as a coward. Krishna explains to Arjuna that "nothing exists but the eternal principle; being, in itself. . . . We are compelled to do, but as if we did it not, and without concerning ourselves about the result, interiorly motionless, with our eyes fixed unceasingly upon the absolute principle which alone exists with a true existence."(82)

[40]        Cousin supports the idea of individual consciousness ó that individuals are conscious of their powers of reason ó and believes reason is independent of the individual and exists of its own accord. He does not make a distinction between the faculties of Reason and Understanding, as Coleridge does, but writes, "reason does not modify itself to suit our pleasure; we do not think as we wish to think; our understanding is not free."(83) Instead, he makes a distinction between, what he terms, the me and the not me. Kant in Cousinís opinion led to skepticism; he so proposed a solution by distinguishing between spontaneous and reflective reason. "Reason," he writes, "is not subjective; what I call a subject, is me; it is person, liberty, will. Reason has not any characteristic mark of individual personality, and of liberty. . . . Whoever said my truth your truth?"(84) For Cousin, reason differs little from what is commonly termed the truth, which is fixed or absolute. Our capacity for understanding truth is, however, limited and subjective.

[41]        Cousinís book influence the earliest works of Transcendentalism, including Emersonís "Nature," Theodore Parkerís "A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity," and Orestes Brownsonís New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church. Perry Miller called Brownson the "self-appointed apostle" of Cousin in America. When Thoreau took leave for a semester to teach in Canton, he stayed with Brownson.

[42]        Harvard records show Thoreau borrowed Cousinís Introduction to the History of Philosophy from the library of the Institute of 1770 in June 1837 and renewed it again in July.(85) In a June college essay entitled "Barbarities of Civilized States," Thoreau uses the phrase not me in reference to nature.(86) He seems to have used the distinction between the me and the not me as a distinction between consciousness and conscience as well. In a sublime passage from Walden, he wrote: "However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it; and that is no more I than it is you."(87) In his "Nature Address," Emerson uses the not me phrase to denote nature, art, the body, and all persons other than the self.

[43]        It is not scriptural authority that establishes truth, per se, but rather the universal forms that are suggested by scripture. Cousin writes: "Faith cannot but be the consent of reason to that which reason comprehends as true. This is the foundation of all faith. Take away the possibility of knowing, and there remains nothing to believe; for the very root of faith is removed."(88) In Walden, Thoreau writes: "There is a certain class of unbelievers who sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once ó for the root is faith ó I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board nails. If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have to say."(89) Whether it is a belief in religious dogma or a belief in the absolute precepts of reason, in each case, the keystone is faith, which is needed in order of consent.

[44]        Thoreau and Emerson were not eclectic philosophers in the strictest sense. Unlike Cousin, they never wanted to systematize philosophy. They were enthusiastic about his approach to history and with its emphasis on recurring archetypal symbols. Cousin essentially reaffirmed Kantian idealism within an eclectic system that had some of the same tendencies and inclinations as those inherent to Transcendentalism. Emerson had already been engaged in his own exhaustive study of philosophy having read Locke, Hume, Stewart, and Coleridge as well as Plato and the Stoics before he came toCousin.(90) The importance of French Eclecticism to Transcendentalism was in its affirmation of consciousness and conscience through archetypal symbols found in scripture, myth, and philosophy that recur at all times and in all nations.

[45]        Transcendentalism began as a reform movement within the Unitarian Church. The Transcendentalists wanted to revive religious sentiment outside the traditional conventions and dogma of the Church. When Emerson asserted that the individual partakes in the divinity of God, he was not advocating the perfectionism of Finney or Noyes. Instead, Emerson believes every individual has a so-called "spark of divinity," but that this is realized by an acceptance of the inner-self or "Oversoul," as he terms it, and not by an acceptance, per se, of the Holy Spirit or Christ. Emersonís belief, in this respect, is more akin to Buddhism or Hinduism, which also stresses a belief in the divine perfection of the soul. Using the language of Cousin, Emerson refers to the soul as the me and the body as the not me. Evangelicals, and particularly Noyes, emphasized the material and utilitarian qualities of perfectionism far more than did Emerson or Thoreau.

[46]        Orestes Brownson was probably the greatest advocate of perfectionism among the Transcendentalists. He does not speak in terms of overthrowing the "nation" as Noyes does, but rather of reexamining certain principles. He writes:

Spiritualism and Materialism presupposes a necessary and original antithesis between Spirit and Matter . . . This antithesis generates perpetual and universal war. It is necessary then to remove it and harmonize, or unite the two terms. Now, if we conceive Jesus as standing between Spirit and Matter, the representative of both ó God-Man ó where both meet and lose their antithesis, laying a hand on each and saying, ĎBe one, as I and my father are one,í thus sanctifying both and marrying them in a mystic and holy union, we shall have his secret thought and the true Idea of Christianity.(91)
By giving Spirit and Matter equal attention, Brownson believed an individual could balance the competing elements and realize their true nature, which consists equally of the two principles. Brownson, in fact, recognizes the proportional importance of the subject and the object. In order to facilitate their balance, he bespeaks his rather unorthodox plan of revising the Protestant work ethic and reversing the Biblical equation of a week. Instead of one day, an individual should devote six days to reverencing God and one day to work. Impractical or extravagant, perhaps, but Thoreau said as much in his commencement address, writing:
Let men, true to their natures, cultivate the moral affections, lead manly and independent lives; let them make riches the means and not the end of existence, and we shall hear no more of the commercial spirit. The sea will not stagnate, the earth will be green as ever, and the air as pure. This curious world which we inhabit is more wonderful than it is convenient, more beautiful than it is useful ó it is more to be admired and enjoyed then, than used. The order of things should be somewhat reversed, ó the seventh should be manís day of toil, wherein to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, and the other six his sabbath of the affections and the soul, in which to range this wide-spread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of Nature.(92)
Notice, too, his subversion; Thoreau uses lowercase sabbath and uppercase Nature. The tone and emphasis that Brownson and Thoreau use are quit different from the sentiment conveyed by Garrison and Noyes, and yet they give as good a picture as any as to how the Transcendentalists believed society could be improved through self-culture.

[47]        To suppose that Thoreau relished in languor would be to misjudge the man. He, in his 44 years, left behind a 2.5 million-word journal, 3,000 pages of notes on the American Indian, a 354-page manuscript on The Dispersion of Seeds, a 631-page manuscript on Wild Fruits, more than 700 pages of notes and charts on the natural history of Concord, and the Cape Cod, Maine Woods, and A Yankee in Canada manuscripts, and several essays, published or otherwise, on literature, history, nature, and reform, et al., as well as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. These, his "sabbath" works, are testimony to his fecundity. As for earning his living by the "sweat of his brow," Thoreau was a land-surveyor, lecturer, freelance journalist, and a manufacturer of pencils, which rivaled the best European imports.

[48]        Because of their emphasis on the individual, the Transcendentalists wanted some assurance, philosophically, that an individual was capable of free moral judgment. They referred not to the Enlightenment notion of reason based on intellection but to an intuitionism based on Kantian idealism and explained in Coleridgeís Aids to Reflection. Coleridge was not the only source for Transcendentalism, but his view illustrates well the kind of reasoning process in which they themselves engaged. Some intellectual process was necessary if they were to break with scriptural authority. The break was not necessarily complete, however, as the Transcendentalists often referred to the Bible as well as the scripture of several nations for universal notions of the Moral Law. They, no doubt, placed great emphasis on the affections, but without subscribing to the same kind of emotionalism and religious fervor that marked the Second Great Awakening. Nor was Transcendentalism predicated on a strict belief in nonviolence as was Abolitionism under the tutelage of Garrison, but on transcendent idealism, which found perhaps its greatest expression in Thoreauís rich transcendental metaphor.

Return to: Thoreau Reader - Table of Contents - Next Section


Notes

37.  Glick 228. (back)
38.  Glick 164. (back)
39.  Harold Clarke Goddard, Studies in New England Transcendentalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1908) 21. (back)
40.  Theodore Parker, "A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity," Views of Religion (Boston, 1890) 309. (back)
41.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, "An Address," Nature Addresses and Lectures, ed. Edward W. Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903) 128. (back)
42.  Emerson, "An Address," Nature Addresses and Lectures 144. (back)
43.  Perry Miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950) 21. (back)
44.  William Ellery Channing, "Likeness to God," in The Transcendentalists: An Anthology 23, 24, & 25. (back)
45.  Edward H. Madden, Civil Disobedience and the Moral Law in Nineteenth- Century American Philosophy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968) 5. (back)
46.  Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 30. Richardson discusses Scottish realism and Emersonís reaction to Stewartís system, pages 29-33. (back)
47.  Emerson, "Transcendentalist," Nature Addresses and Lectures 339. (back)
48.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Heart of Emersonís Journals, ed. Bliss Perry (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937) 262. (back)
49.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection (London, 1836) 151. (back)
50.Coleridge 149. (back)
51. Coleridge 214. (back)
52.  Robert Sattelmeyer, Thoreauís Reading: A Study in Intellectual History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). (back)
53.  Henry David Thoreau A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Orleans, MA: Parnassus Imprints, 1987) 452 & 477. (back)
54.  Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986) 381. (back)
55.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969) 408. (back)
56.  Henry David Thoreau, Journal, vol. 1, ed. John C. Broderick (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981) 277. (back)
57.  Thoreau Journal 1: 289 & 298. (back)
58. Thoreau, Walden 142. (back)
59.  Thoreau, Walden 343. (back)
60.  William Ellery Channing, "Self-Culture," The Works of William Ellery Channing (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1957) 17 & 18. (back)
61.  Sherman Paul, Shores of America: Thoreauís Inward Exploration (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972) 5. (back)
62.  See Arthur Christy, The Orient in American Transcendentalism: A Study of Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932). (back)
63.  Thoreau, Journal (Broderick) 3: 306. (back)
64.  Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945) 706. (back)
65.  Thoreau, A Week 91. (back)
66.  Emerson, "The American Scholar," Nature Addresses and Lectures 115. (back)
67.  Emerson, "Nature," Nature Addresses and Lectures 10, 25, 75, & 40. (back)
68.  Thoreau Journal (Broderick) 4: 29-30. (back)
69.  Thoreau, Walden 313. (back)
70.  Thoreau, Walden 172. (back)
71.  Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) 71. (back)
72.  Channing, "Spiritual Freedom," Works 173. (back)
73.  Channing, "Spiritual Freedom," Works 174. (back)
74.  Duban 212. (back)
75.  Thoreau, "Paradise (to be) Regained," Reform Papers 38. (back)
76.  See Linck C. Johnson, Thoreauís Complex Weave: The Writing of a Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1986). (back)
77.  Thoreau, A Week 67, 69, & 364. (back)
78.  Victor Cousin, Introduction to the History of Philosophy (Boston, 1832) 1. (back)
79.  Richardson makes a similar point. See Richardson, Emerson 114. (back)
80.  Cousin 185. (back)
81.  Cousin 35. (back)
82.  Cousin 72 & 73. (back)
83.  Cousin 126. (back)
84.  Cousin 171. (back)
85.  Sattelmeyer 20. (back)
86.  Henry David Thoreau, "Barbarities of Civilized States," Early Essays and Miscellanies, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975) 110. (back)
87.  Thoreau, Walden 205. The italics are mine. (back)
88.  Cousin 131. (back)
89.  Thoreau Walden 153. (back)
90.   Emersonís reading was far broader than I have indicated. While a complete list of his reading is outside the scope of my subject, I suggest Richardsonís book for those interested, and especially those who would like to understand the importance for Emerson to refute Hume. Richardson also argues convincingly that it was Cousin who first helped Emerson to appreciate Eastern philosophy and religion. The same is probably true of Thoreau. (back)
91.  Orestes A. Brownson, New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church (Boston: James Munroe, 1836) 13. (back)
92.  Thoreau, "The Commercial Spirit of Modern Times," Early Essays and Miscellanies 117. (back)


Thoreau Reader:  Home - Table of Contents - Next Section