Transcendentalism and Views of the Individual and Society
Romanticism as a literary movement originated in Europe in the late XVIII century. “From the late XVIII century to the end of the XIX century, in both Europe and the United States, an artistic and intellectual movement called romanticism became a dominant force in politics, religion, and the arts” (Ladd, Anesko, Phillips, and Meyers 4). One of the main reasons for its appearance was the fact that this era was the time of strong shocks throughout Europe. In 1789, there was the French Revolution. It completely finished only in 1814. It consisted of a number of significant events that eventually led to a whole literary coup. It changed the mentality of a person. A person is in center of the creative system of romanticism and the main conflict is between an individual and the society. The epoch of romanticism was marked by the flowering of literature, one of the distinctive features of which was public and political enthusiasm for challenges. The main representatives of romanticism in literature are Lord Byron, Edgar Po, Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, and many others. The authors depicted a romantic hero like a complex and passionate personality, with unusually deep and endless inner world. There are many various movements and ideas developed on the basis of romanticism. Transcendentalism is one of them. Transcendentalism is an ideological and aesthetic basis, the literary and philosophical landmark of writers in the United States in the XIX century.
The onset of the mature stage of American Romanticism is associated with the economic upheavals of the late 1830s, foreign and domestic political conflicts’ of 40s, and the rise of the radical liberation movement. This period is characterized by a number of tragic discoveries made by the romantics. First of all, it was a discovery that the social evil –slavery and the extermination of the Indians – was not a certain force acting from outside of their ideal society. People understood that the Americans admitted it. They knew that in the history of the American state, there was something that could lead to the degeneration of democracy. With this discovery, there was the general reorientation of romantic consciousness. People wanted to know about a person and about moral and spiritual side of human personality.
The mature phase of American Romanticism is usually characterized as romantic humanism in the criticism. “Romanticism asserted the power of the individual and marked an era characterized by an individualization of the individual” (Ladd, Anesko, Phillips, and Meyers 4). Individual human consciousness in its intellectual, moral, and emotional manifestations became the main object of the artistic research of writers. Focusing on the individual consciousness did not mean the loss of the interest in public relations, social, and political problems. However, these problems refracting through the prism of romantic perception of the world were brought in a mystified form. The question on how to overcome evil was also focused on a person and a hidden spiritual potential of an individual. Various social and literary movements sought to this – abolitionism, transcendentalism, Young America, and others. With all the vast dissimilarity between them, they had a philosophical and aesthetic basis of romantic humanism.
Transcendentalism is a kind of a formula of romantic humanism. “Most educated Americans identify transcendentalism as a nineteenth-century intellectual movement that spawned Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller” (Gura 1). Its theoretical embodiment is shown mainly in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau. The attempts of its practical implementation are in the organization of life on the fair and harmonious basis. Moreover, the task of creating a commune was not a social reform but renewal and cultivation of every person, as well as the proof of the spiritual and economic independence. Transcendentalism was a movement with the reaction against the rationalism of the XVIII century. The movement expressed a general trend of the development of a humanistic thought of the XIX century. At its core, this movement had faith in the unanimity of the Lord and the world. “Obviously, by 1869, transcendentalism was part of the nation’s popular mythology” (Gura 8). The heart of every individual was considered identical around the world. It was a world in miniature. The doctrine of individualism and confidence developed by convincing the reader that the heart and the soul of a man were linked to God and identified with Him.
Transcendentalism was territorially associated with Concord. It is a small town in New England, which is located 32 kilometers west of Boston. This town was one of the first settlements of the colonists of Massachusetts. It was the first rural colony of writers and artists. Concord was a cultural and spiritual substitute to American materialism. The town was an area where people had exalted conversations. Nevertheless, they lived modestly and simply. The writers Thoreau and Emerson were most closely connected to Concord. However, this town also attracted the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as the writer and feminist Margaret Fuller. Bronson Alcott, the father of the future writer Louisa May Alcott, and the poet William Ellery Channing lived there.
It can be conditionally assumed that the society of transcendentalists was formed in 1836. At various times, it consisted of Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Channing, Bronson Alcott, priest Orestes Brownson, preacher and abolitionist Theodore Parker, and many others. Transcendentalists published a magazine coming out every three months. This magazine existed for four years. Initially, Margaret Fuller was the editor, and then – Emerson. They were interested in literature issues and political reforms in the country. A large number of transcendentalists were abolitionists.
In contrast to many European groups, transcendentalists never produced any manifestos. They insisted that all people had their personality and this personality was unique. American transcendentalists took radical individualism to extremes. American writers frequently considered themselves solitary explorers of human society. “Transcendentalisms was a set of ideas promoting a new understanding of the individual, his or her relationship to nature and society and the universe, and the importance of self-development” (Wayne 2). The heroes of American literature are occasionally on the verge of death and life. They do so because they want to reveal their inner selves. After all, for the American Romantic writer nothing was settled. Nothing was certain. Social and literary traditions did not help. In fact, they were dangerous. The writers tried to create a new literary form, fill it with the new content and find the right sound. Now when people look at the masterpieces created over three decades before the Civil War, they are clearly convinced of the writer’s desire to create their national literature.
The representatives of this movement shared Kant’s views of a priori knowledge. It was eternally inherent in consciousness supposedly and was the condition and the basis for all experience. They believed that from the birth the human mind was not tabula rasa. Transcendentalists did not take the capitalist accumulation. They offered the higher spiritual values instead of it. American transcendentalists placed the human endowed with the divine soul in the center of the universe. They did not recognize any authority over themselves except for the law of “I” (Packer 25-26).
One of the brightest representatives of transcendentalism is Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had consciousness of his special religious purpose. His main ideas are the need for a new national vision of the world, human use of personal experience, the concept of space Super soul and the theory of compensation. All these ideas were presented in his first treatise Nature. In the treatise, the author stressed that from the philosophical point of view, the universe was divided into Nature and the Soul. In the treatise Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that a person should be valued not for riches but for personal qualities, even if a man relies on himself/herself and is looking for ways to live rightly.
Another representative of transcendentalism was Henry David Thoreau. The theme of his works was the desire to live his life in accordance with the stern principles. The main work of Thoreau is Walden. The most common and earthly worries of a person occupy the main place in the work. In Walden, Thoreau opens the inner boundary self-knowledge of a person. Deceptively modest, this book is a key to the implementation of the classical ideal of the good life. In Thoreau’s works, there is an idea of independence, according to which individuals are required to solve their problems independently. His ethical principles made Henry David Thoreau a supporter of abolitionism.
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The main features of transcendentalism are introspection and self-reliance, spiritual independence, the divinity of the human “I”, equality of people, the denial of violence against the person, a pantheistic view of life, the negation of the cult of enrichment, the belief in the existence of “over soul”, the particles of which contained in each person. Transcendentalism played a significant role in the development of the philosophical foundations of late romanticism in the United States.
Transcendentalism is an original religious, philosophical, and ethical system, which developed a national philosophical tradition in the United States. It was a philosophical and aesthetic benchmark for Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. Regardless of whether American romantics shared the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau or not, they reflected them directly or indirectly in their writings. Progressive ideas that were contained in the writings and speeches of transcendentalists could not but influence the American creative intelligentsia.
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