The transcendentalism movement started in New England in the 1830s and continued from then until the 1850s. Many philosophers were involved in this movement including Henry Thoreau. According to many people, Henry Thoreau was a complicated man with many talents. He worked incredibly hard at his craft and his life to make sure he was intellectually sound. There was little or no difference in the two. He was also one of the forerunners of the transcendentalism concept.
According to him and a lot of other philosophers, transcendentalism is a difficult concept to define. But, they tried their best to analyze it and we will as well. According to Thoreau, Transcendentalism encompasses very complex philosophical and religious ideas. As a result of the complexity, its principles are tinted with mysticism which defies crisp explanation. Also, many of the people who called themselves Transcendentalists had different ideas on what the concept meant. Thus, they had different interpretations. In a nutshell, transcendentalism is a movement that seeks to view God face to face just like preceding generations. However, there are many ideas and opinions about Thoreau’s concept you should know.
- Its foundation is on Unitarianism: In the past, philosophical ideas developed very quickly unlike now. Many books and essays were published to reflect these point of views and opinions. The Unitarianism concept was one of such. It developed shortly before the transcendentalism concept. Henry Thoreau found Unitarianism very conservative. He was also of the opinion that the concept was found wanting spiritually and emotionally. According to Thoreau, worshiping God in unity was good but not good enough. There is more than can happen that ought to be discovered by everybody. This led to him deciding to be radical in an attempt to find out if it is possible to commune with God one on one as other generations did. So, Thoreau’s transcendentalism concept would probably not have been in existence without the Unitarianism theory.
- He believed firmly in seeing God face to face: Many of the transcendentalists were dissatisfied with their state of mind then. They envied the other generations simply because they had seen God face to face. But, in their own generation, they were confined to believing those times had gone and you could not see God unless he chooses to reveal himself. They were in a way confined to viewing God through the eyes of the older generation. Thoreau wanted original relation to the universe just like the other transcendentalists. He wanted to be able to write many verses and poetry from personal experience and not from another person’s experience. Thoreau did not want a religion based on a revelation by other people. He did not want to be stuck with history and what might even be hearsays.
- He assumed a universe divided into two essential parts: In his writing, Thoreau subscribed to the beliefs of many transcendentalists that the universe is divided into the soul and nature. He made sure he separated the function of the soul from that of nature. According to him, the soul is that part of human beings that God dwells in. And the way we can see God all around us is when it is revealed to us through nature. He believed so much in nature that he left Concord where he grew up and went to live at Walden Pond. He believed being there is the closest he can be to nature in a very intimate way. Through this, he felt closer to God.
- His oneness with nature led to the concept of oversoul: In his writings about the transcendentalism concept, his ideas about experiencing oneness with nature led to the oversoul. The oversoul encompasses the framework within which a direct relationship with God and also with nature was so crucial to the Transcendentalists. In a simpler way for you to understand, the oversoul is like a cosmic force between man, God, and nature.
- Social activism needs to be emphasized because of the sense of cosmic unity: According to Thoreau, a direct consequence of the cosmic unity mentioned above should be social activism. He and other transcendentalists believed that if human beings experience an intimate connection with God, and God is good, just and fair, then human beings are just like that as well. Evil should not exist in humans at all. If it so much as exists, it might be because man is not aware of his essential goodness and godliness he had deep inside him like God has too. This particular stand of Thoreau’s and other believers like him has led to a belief that man has the power to bring about improvement and social harmony in accordance with God’s word. Various reform activities have been established since then to make sure this man can improve the society.
- Individuals must understand the concept actively: In Henry Thoreau’s essays, he believed that as important as the relationship between the man, nature and the individual is, nothing is more important than the process the person goes through before adequately understanding. Through his writings, he advocated that people should not look for truth through the traditional systems of belief or through formal reasoning. Neither could give accurate and adequate insight into the truth. Thus, reading numerous books, advancing many philosophical positions, plotting graphs and trying to rationalize thoughts and in an attempt to understand God would be very futile. Rather, he believed that people should look to intuitive thought rather than the consciously rational thought.
Thoreau’s transcendentalism concept is all about understanding and experiencing God. If you are a very religious person, this concept should interest you a great deal. If you are not, merely studying this would give insight into how some people rationalize their beliefs. Thoreau believed that it is not only important for other generations to have communed with God face to face, but the people in his generation should experience it too. His concept is noticeable in little ways in some regions of the world today.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia