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Lecture 6e: From Romanticism to Transcendentalism

March 14, 2014

The second form of individualism common in Transcendentalism is that of self-exploration. We discussed above the existence of a current of life, as per the natural, vitalist philosophy often joined to Romanticism. As noted then, this current of life is both within and without, inside us and out, and the particular form that this current of life takes in each person is unique to that person. As such, not only is the individual capable of exploring the entirety of nature within and without through observation and introspection, he or she is also capable of discovering an entire world within him or herself, more vast than can be imagined and unlike that in any other person. For each of us is unique, special, with a specific gift to discover, and we all have something to offer to community, society and humanity. In order to discover this special part of nature within us, it is, however, necessary to distance ourselves from society and awaken to the voice of nature within us. This calls for isolation from others precisely because the busy life of contemporary society and industry tends to drown out this voice, such that we cannot hear it. Hence the importance of Thoreau’s spending time alone at Walden Pond. All things in the world are in connection with the divine or beyond, if only we take the time to listen and (re)establish our own connection to that aspect of the world.

Yet, as individuals, we are not merely bound to discover this unique part of nature within ourselves. We also owe it to ourselves, as well as community and society, to develop that specific gift so as to present it in explicit form in society. More simply, my gift must become available to others in some way such that they might benefit from it. (This theme is explored in many of Emerson’s essays, such as “On The Uses of Great Men”.) If we all have something to offer to society, be it the current one or some future ideal one, I must do my best to cultivate that gift so that I can make my own contribution therein. As we can see, Transcendentalism is not diametrically opposed to community. Rather, the individual can only contribute to the betterment of society by first paying developing his or her own practices and gifts. In short, the individual must first be free to decide the direction of his or her own life.

We can see these influences in the evolution of our four main theses:

19th Century American Transcendentalism:

 1.) Natural order: The world has a natural, regular order. Due to the great current of life within and without, this world reflects our selves, such that outer world elicits strong feelings in inner self.

2.) Radical affirmation of individualism: If nature is within us and we are whole only when we express our inner nature, then it is our duty to express this and develop our own highly individual way of life, as befits our inner nature.

3.) Humanized materialism: If things in the world reflect our selves and humanity has a natural tendency to pursue happiness, then order in the things in the world should further that happiness.

4.) Humanized progress: If the world exhibits a regular order, it is our duty to come to know that order better through both scientific means (rational control) and poetic means (individualized expression).

f. Conclusion

We can see just how much the person’s relationship to the world changed over the course of this two hundred year period. In response to our two guiding questions, we have seen in what ways the community has first established its independence from God by progressively removing divine influence from the everyday workings of the natural world and by developing a view on which individuals and communities must be free to pursue their own forms of spirituality and worship. We have also seen how the category of the individual first emerges within this period: as something separate from the family and community through such notions as private property and rights; as being capable of acting on the world; as taking responsibility for political arrangements and their change; as needing to pursue his or her development independently of the demands and practices of the community. The state of individual and culture in 1850 is still within us today in our attitudes towards science and rights, as well as the view that each individual has something unique to offer society.

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