Transcendentalism called on people to view the objects in the world as small versions of the whole universe and to trust their individual intuitions. The two most noted American transcendentalists were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an essayist, a poet, a transcendentalist, and a philosopher. His biography and his writings are fascinating and compelling and well worth a serious look, but what interests me more in this day and age is how he managed — almost 200 years ago — to sum up some of the MAJOR problems the country is suffering today. Below are a handful of quotes by Emerson which could have been spoken or written TODAY, and if so would not sound even a day out of date.
“People only see what they are prepared to see.”
“When a whole nation is roaring patriotism at the top of its voice,
I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and purity of its heart.”
“The Religion that is afraid of science dishonours God and commits suicide.”
“The louder he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”
“Fear always springs from ignorance.”
“The civility of no race can be perfect whilst another race is degraded. It is a doctrine alike of the oldest and of the newest philosophy, that man is one, and that you cannot injure any member, without a sympathetic injury to all the members.”
“Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love.”
“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
[T]he general system of our trade…is a system of selfishness; is not dictated by the high sentiments of human nature; is not measured by the exact law of reciprocity; much less by the sentiments of love and heroism, but is a system of distrust, of concealment, of superior keenness, not of giving but of taking advantage.”
“All conservatives are such from personal defects. They have been effeminated by position or nature, born halt and blind, through luxury of their parents, and can only, like invalids, act on the defensive.”
“Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory.”
Is that not a nearly perfect — albeit abbreviated — episodic summation of today’s American Fascist Movement (aka the GOP), including its evangelical “Christian” contingent? I guess Emerson was either incredibly prescient, or maybe the dregs of the human species are always invariably predictable to anyone who practices transcendentalism.
Or maybe Emerson’s fellow transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau nailed it when he wrote (Journal, 14/3 1838):
“The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member, but on the contrary degrades itself to a level with the lowest.”
2015’s GOP therein defined.