October 14, 2022

#08-247: The New England Transcendentalists

Emerson - Thoreau - Alcott

Note: Transcendentalism was one of the first uniquely American philosophies, and has had a widespread effect.

Get Ready: Is it possible for a modern religion to give nature a central place?

The philosophical movement called Transcendentalism arose in the early 19th-century from the Unitarian movement that centered around Harvard University. Unitarians rejected some of the traditional teachings of Christianity, especially the Trinity: they did not believe that God was "Three-in-One," but simply One, or Unitary.

Influenced by Hinduism and other Eastern ideas, Transcendentalists believed that people were inherently good (not sinful, as traditional Christianity taught); that individuals could become self-reliant and rise above the corrupting influence of institutions; and that the everyday world we live in could be a source of divine experience, without waiting for a distant life in heaven. In this way the individual can "transcend" old, restrictive ways of thinking.

Some of the best-known writers of the day were Transcendentalists; three of them were neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, a small town just outside of Boston.

Foremost among them was Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Harvard-educated minister, who, after resigning from the pulpit, became a renowned essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet.

Just the names of his essays can tell us something about Transcendentalism: "Self-Reliance," "Love," "Friendship," "Heroism," "The Over-Soul" (heavily influenced by Hinduism), "Experience," "Character," and "Nature" (in which the Transcendentalists perceived the divine).

Emerson sometimes hired his neighbor Henry David Thoreau as a handyman. It was on the shores of a small lake owned by Emerson that Thoreau wrote his most famous work, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. In it he extolled the virtues of nature, simplicity, the need for spiritual awakening, and self-reliance--all Transcendental values.

Not so well-known today is another Transcendentalist neighbor, Amos Bronson Alcott, a reforming educator and vegetarian who advocated for women's rights. Among those women, though, was his daughter, also a Transcendentalist, of whom you've surely heard: Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women and other books for young people, which also embody the spirit of independence and the nurturing of character so important to the movement.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. advocated (for)
  2. awakening
  3. divine
  4. extolled
  5. handyman
  6. Hinduism
  7. inherently
  8. pulpit
  9. resigning
  10. virtues

  1. the place from which a preacher preaches
  2. supported; campaigned (for)
  3. a person who fixes things around the house
  4. positive qualities
  5. becoming aware of
  6. the main religion of India
  7. praised
  8. quitting
  9. holy; of God
  10. by nature; necessarily

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for Oct 14, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. e; 3. i; 4. g; 5. c; 6. f; 7. j; 8. a; 9. h; 10. d