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Transcendentalism and Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Mind is the only reality. The real person is what he thinks. The material world is a shadow of the idea. I am only a reflection of what I think.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

On September 8, 1836, while attending Harvard’s bicentennial celebration, Emerson met at Willard’s Hotel in Cambridge with his friends Henry Hedge, George Putnam (a Unitarian minister), and George Ripley to plan a symposium for people who, like themselves, found the present state of thought in America unsatisfactory. They were also moved by the stale intellectual climate of Harvard and Cambridge. President Quincy had his eye on the past; theirs was on the present and future. Almost two weeks later, on September 19, the first meeting of what came to be known as the Transcendental Club was born out of protest.

The movement took its name from the German philosopher Kant. It held that there are moral laws which transcend man—that there are absolute truths. Beauty, goodness, wisdom are to the philosopher precisely what heat, motion, and chemical actions are to the physicist. Transcendentalists believed that religion is a primary sentiment in human nature, not merely dependent on certain facts of history. It is poetic, generous, devout, open to all the humanities and sciences, literature, and sympathies of philosophy.

Basically, they held that there are three primary ideas we know intuitively: the ideas of God, duty, and immortality. These need no confirmation from any book or miracles, but are affirmed by humankind’s own divine nature. God is not a being apart from the universe, but everywhere, especially in humans, insofar as our thoughts are infinite. As we reason, God is absolute Reason. “Stand aside,” said Emerson, “and let God think—that is, let the divine within you show through. Duty is taught by the voice within. We know, when we use our highest Reason, what we ought to do. We need no Ten Commandments for that. Men may shirk duty in perilous times, but they still know what their duty is.”

The Transcendental Club’s magazine, The Dial, first appeared in 1840 with Margaret Fuller as editor and George Ripley her assistant. Emerson contributed and edited essays, and became its editor in 1842. Through this vehicle, he encouraged many promising thinkers and writers. His influence on the movement was central.

“Such is the saturation of things with the moral law, that you cannot escape from it. You may kill the preachers of it, but innumerable preaches survive: the violets and roses and grass preach it, rain and snow and wind and frost, moon and tides, every change and every cause in nature is nothing but a disguised missionary.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson