Sunday, May 21, 2006


Emerson's The Transcendentalist is the fourth in a series of eight lectures that he delivered at the Masonic Temple in Boston over the winter of 1841-42. In it Emerson explains what a transcendentalist is and is not. I love all the nature stuff, but when I get right down to it, I find the transcendental philosophy troublesome. Emerson begins by saying that there are two classes of people, materialists and idealists. As he has mentioned before, materialists are sensualists, experience and what can be perceived by the senses is the basis of their philosophy. This, for the transcendentalists, distastefully ties the materialists to Locke and the Unitarian church. The transcendentalists are idealists and do not believe in the senses but in a consciousness that transcends the merely physical to a spiritual state. This transcendence is achieved through an individual's intuition, not through established religious doctrines. The transcendental philosophy is based a good deal on Kant with a hefty dose of English Romanticism tossed in for flavor. I understand the aversion to materialism. An absolute reliance on the senses can get you into trouble. Seeing may be believing but the senses can be fooled. But I am even more bothered for some reason by the transcendentalist's absolute reliance on the individual whose

experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, an necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him.
So much relative subjectivity verges on solipsism. Also an issue for me is the transcendentalist's view of society. They reject society and its injustices which is fine. But instead of working toward fixing them, they prefer to set themselves apart in solitude, to retreat to the woods or the farm and rely upon themselves for their needs. Therefore,
what you call your fundamental institutions, your great and holy causes, seem to them great abuses, and, when nearly seen, paltry matters. Each 'cause' as it is called--day Abolition, Temperance, say Calvinism, or Unitarianism--becomes speedily a little shop, where the article, let it have been at first never so subtle and ethereal, is now made up into portable and convenient cakes, and retailed in small quantities to suit purchasers.
I have no problem with the critique, it is often valid. What troubles me is the complete withdrawal of any effort to change things for the better. Emerson also criticizes the "general course of living, and the daily employments of men" as having not much virtue. I agree that there is much individual compromise in daily living within society. But instead of turning their great minds to improving conditions for all, to turning work into something meaningful where the individual is not continually forced to compromise integrity, the transcendentalist either does not work, or removes himself from society entirely. Obviously, my philosophy does not match up with transcendentalism. I believe in charity and working to change the injustices of society for everyone's benefit. As much as I would sometimes love to withdraw to a farm to create my own little world, I tend to believe it a rather irresponsible thing to do. When Emerson declares that society "has its duties in reference to this class" of idealistic transcendentalists, I almost choked. They have no duty to society, Emerson even acknowledges they are bad citizens, but society has a duty to them? Such howlers are the things people come up with when they spend too much time in their heads with their intuition and not enough time in the empirical world. Is there no balance possible? Must it always be one or the other? Next week's Emerson is a sermon: "The Lord's Supper"