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Transcendentalism

I had the good luck to attend Louisiana State University in the early 60’s.  While there I had the good sense to major in English which gave me the opportunity to be introduced  to transcendentalism.

I don’t hear “transcendentalism” mentioned much today, but in the early 60’s at LSU, I could not escape it nor did I want to.  I think I was a transcendentalist before I had ever heard of the word.

Transcendentalism is a cultural, literary, and philosophical movement which began in New England in the mid 19th Century which was led by such thinkers as Emerson and Thoreau.  Although based on European thought, it was the first truly American philosophical movement, and to a large extent, defined the American character.

The fact that there were different views from the beginning on what transcendentalism was causes us to have difficulties defining it now.  However, of course, I’ll attempt the task.

Everyone, well, almost everyone---some folks think so oddly---believes that knowledge is gained through personal experience, education both formal and informal.  Transcendentalists don’t discount this obvious truth but add a belief in innate knowledge, knowing a priori.


A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

 

As to how one taps into this self-knowledge, the transcendentalists differed.  One way proposed is communing with nature---whatever that means.  I’m afraid I diverge from this branch of transcendentalism as it turns to nature.  As a youth, I spent a lot of time alone in the woods, but I never found it particularly interesting or informative, undoubtedly indicative of a personal flaw.  Another is by being alone with one’s own thoughts.  Heck, I’ve spent a lot of time alone throughout my life.  I enjoy the company of others, but I’ve never been alarmed by not having someone else around to interrupt my thoughts.  Regardless of how one gains this inner knowledge, I must conclude that, yes, I do believe in innate knowledge, an understanding which is internal, not based on knowledge gained by our experiences regardless of how it is gained.  

This belief in innate knowledge implies a belief in intuition.  Although not infallible, my intuition has seldom failed to guide me faithfully.   

Transcendentalists eshew materialism, the desire to acquire material goods.  My feelings about materialism might seem quaint to my readers.  Thoreau’s essay, “Walden Pond,” was an expression of the turning of one’s back on the burdens of materialism.  Being a practical man, I’ve spent my coins on the necessities of life: shelter, toilet paper, food, etc., but I’ve limited my extravagances to a narrow range of indulgences.  This lack of respect for acquiring the material world is what allowed me to become and remain an educator for thirty-five years.  Obviously, it certainly wasn’t for the money.

Being a practical man, in my forties it dawned on me, that I needed to save and invest money, not to purchase the material world but to act as a bulwark against poverty.  So far that’s working out pretty well.


“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden


Although born out of the Unitarian Church, transcendentalists saw little need for the formal church.  They did not turn their backs on the church, but they felt that men could acquire a relationship to God without going through the intermediary of the church.  Amen.


God enters by a private door into every individual.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance


Probably my strongest tie to transcendentalism is the belief in individualism.  Transcendentalists believe that individuals are at their best when they are truly self-reliant and independent of both the formal church and political parties and, for that matter, any external influences.  When I was young, I participated regularly in both the Baptist and Methodist Churches, and I’m supportive of both but restrain from participation in most of their activities.  As for political parties, a pocks on both their houses.  As for other organizations, I’ve joined few and have found none very satisfying.


Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance


With my introduction to transcendentalism at LSU, I realized I had found a philosophical home.  Although I profess to be a Christian, I see little need for the formal church.  Although I know that knowledge is power, I believe that some knowledge is innate.  Although I am a practical man when it comes to ones own finances, the lure of the material world does not tempt me.  Most importantly, I believe every man must be an individual thinking his own thoughts, not adhering to the popular thoughts of the day.

In all of these principles, I’m sure that I am lacking, but these are principles I find worthy, and I’ll try to abide by them again tomorrow.


Finish every day and be done with it.

You have done what you could.

Some blunders and absurdities

no doubt have crept in;

forget them as soon as you can.


Tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely
and with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with
your old nonsense.

This day is all that is
good and fair.
It is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on yesterdays.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

enough